These Are the Top 5 Technologies Starting to Make Construction Safer

Construction workers tend to distrust technology, but acceptance is growing of new tools with demonstrable safety benefits.
By: | November 15, 2018 • 5 min read
Topics: Construction | Safety

Construction workers are typically skeptical of new technologies promising to make their jobs easier. Why?

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“People are fearful of losing their jobs to automation. They feel that if a robot or computer can do part of the job, they become more dispensable,” said Tom Boudreau, Senior Vice President Middle Market with The Hartford. “However, we think that is a generational issue. We are seeing some change in the acceptance of new technology that can improve job site safety. The shift enables us to see a brighter future as far as preventing injury and getting workers home safely every night.”

Here are the five technologies that could lead to critical improvements in worker safety as they gain acceptance on the job site:

1. Exoskeletons

Exoskeletons range from simple upper body supports all the way to full-body suits, but all can assist with a variety of physically demanding tasks.

“Many of the suits out there assist with heavy lifting and can make loads feel a little lighter,” Boudreau said. Others ease the cumulative musculoskeletal burden of repetitive motions, which contribute to soft-tissue injuries.

For this reason, exoskeletons have been more prevalent in manufacturing, where repetitive tasks like riveting and drilling are common jobs.

“People on manufacturing lines are doing the same work every day, using the same hand and arm motions, which is why we’ve seen greater adoption of exoskeletons in that sector,” Boudreau said. “Now we’re trying to educate the construction industry on how this technology can apply to their specific needs.”

Subcontractors doing exterior finishing work, for example, could benefit from extra support for arms and shoulders that are extended for long periods of time.

2. Wearables

Wearables have evolved far beyond wristwatches and clip-on GPS trackers.

“All kinds of wearable equipment have come light years from initial iterations,” Boudreau said. “There are goggles now that can record and transmit in real time what the worker is seeing to someone miles and miles away. This means the worker can get advice from a supervisor instantaneously, which reduces the risk of error but also ensures that the worker is performing the function safely.”

Tom Boudreau, Senior Vice President, Middle Market, The Hartford

Smart vests and boot inserts can also monitor a worker’s heart rate, body temperature and sweat rate, which can allow a potentially dangerous situation like heat stroke to be spotted and remediated before an injury occurs. Motion sensors detect when a worker has fallen or perhaps hasn’t moved at all for a period of time, and can alert supervisors or nearby colleagues.

“The technology is advanced enough that it can detect whether a worker has simply stopped in place, has taken off the device, or has actually slipped and fallen,” Boudreau said.

Wearables also have training applications that enhance safety from a proactive rather than reactive perspective. Amid construction’s ongoing labor shortage, finding the time and resources to train new workers is challenging, but wearable devices that provide a real-time view of a job allows managers or other senior workers to make corrections before a trainee gets injured or makes a mistake.

“This is an opportunity to become a lot more efficient while also improving safety,” Boudreau said.

3. Virtual Reality Simulators

In the same vein, virtual reality training programs expose new employees to tricky or potentially dangerous situations before they encounter them in real life.

“For the last decade or so, there’s been declining investment in training new contractors due to the labor shortage. There’s decreased availability of senior people to train new workers, and project owners need new hires on the job quickly,” Boudreau said.

“When pilots learn to fly, they don’t just jump in a plane and go. They practice in a flight simulator. Contractors can similarly test their reactions in dangerous situations with the help of VR.” – Tom Boudreau, Senior Vice President Middle Market, The Hartford

Virtual reality simulations provide “hands-on” experience without the threat of danger, so trainees can make mistakes and learn from them in a safe environment. Boudreau likened it to pilot training.

“When pilots learn to fly, they don’t just jump in a plane and go. They practice in a flight simulator. Contractors can similarly test their reactions in dangerous situations with the help of VR,” he said.

Investment in virtual reality simulators are well worth the return; getting contractors together in one site for training can be time-consuming and cost prohibitive, and VR removes the location barrier.

4. Robots and Automated Machinery

Remote-controlled robots are gaining traction for their advantages in the dangerous work of demolition. “Losing a robot, obviously is much easier to digest than losing a person,” Boudreau said. But robots can also perform, to some degree, the more arduous tasks of building.

“Semi-automated brick-laying machines, for example, can build at a rate equivalent to four human workers,” Boudreau said. “3D printers, which I also consider to be a form of robotic building, can also synthesize components.”

Though this taps into the fear that automation will eliminate jobs, Boudreau emphasized that such machinery should be seen as an aid to the human worker to maximize his or her efficiency, not a replacement.

“If you have a machine that’s doing the heavy lifting, you allow contractors to devote more time and energy to finer work that requires craftsmanship,” Boudreau said.

5. Site Sensors

Environmental sensors detect temperature, humidity, pressure, dust particles and smoke throughout a job site, and send real-time alerts if something goes awry. Often battery-powered and operating using cellular data, site sensors require no additional infrastructure and take up almost so space, but they can prove critical in mitigating professional liability, construction defect and safety risks.

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Factors like moisture or particulate matter that imperil a building’s structural integrity or safety over time can be caught and addressed early, eliminating costly claims in the future.

“If water leakage or potential mold growth happens after a building’s been completely enclosed, there could be long term ramifications. Fixing that means ripping out walls and changing HVAC systems. In large, multi-story buildings, that can amount to millions in losses,” Boudreau said.

Site sensors equipped with alarms can also alert workers of an emergency more quickly and speed up evacuation time.

While adoption of these technologies has been slow in the construction industry, Boudreau said “I’m bullish enough to believe we will see these tools grow more prominent, and that they will yield significant safety improvements.” &

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]