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Do androids dream of safer construction sites?

by Tim Clark
An interaction between a human and a robot

Tomorrow’s construction workers will likely come to resemble extras in a science fiction movie, as technology rises to the challenge of keeping humans safe on site. Tim Clark reports

When it comes to safety, construction is considered one of the professions prone to more accidents and fatalities.

This view persists despite efforts from governments and contractors; as evidenced by alarming accident statistics reported by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

During the 2022/23 period, HSE reported 69,000 workers with work-related ill health, alongside 45 fatal injuries, and 53,000 non-fatal injuries, highlighting the pressing need for effective safety measures.

Simultaneously, the economic toll of workplace injuries and illnesses in the construction sector is staggering, reaching an estimated £1.3bn for the 2021/22 period. Around 2.6m working days are lost annually in construction due to workplace injuries and illnesses, with 20% attributed to injuries and 80% to work-related illnesses, resulting in approximately 1.3 days lost per worker.

Build in Digital has delved into the transformative role that technology is beginning to have in enhancing construction site safety, from the implementation of drones for aerial surveillance, to the utilisation of virtual reality for training, ultimately striving to reduce accidents and protect workers’ well-being.

A question for many in the sector, however, is just where to start when it comes to site safety.

“Technology is at its best when it allows tasks to be done without risking a human being in an unsafe situation,” says Matt Lacey, managing director of Survey-tech.

“For example, if machine control is utilised (think of it as sat nav for excavators, guiding the operator where to dig) then that means you don’t have a groundworker next to a trench and a 16-tonne machine, poking a staff in to check dig depths.

“Using technology increases efficiency and safety in tandem when we can use it to take people out of harm’s way. Think about it – should a person be walking around with a methane monitor, or would that task be better done with a drone?”

Machine control

Almost any construction site will at some point use heavy machinery such as excavators, dumper trucks, cranes and others. Incidents involving workers being crushed by dumper trucks are common; as are drivers suffering fatalities from overtipping, or striking fellow workers who aren’t seen.

In 2019 a construction firm in Essex was fine £225,000 after a worker died when his dumper overturned. A scaffolder was killed in 2018 when a dumper truck crushed him to death on a Redrow construction site in Merseyside. A construction worker died in January 2020 when he became trapped underneath his dumper truck on a worksite in Lincoln.

The technology to automate the use of such machines is beginning to emerge. Survey-tech’s Lacey recently travelled to the Czech Republic to see first-hand how Unicontrol, which specialise in so-called 3D machine control solutions, is putting the technology to effect.

The aim of 3D machine control is to offer a digital solution to the “man in the cab”, and enable operators to undertake earthmoving tasks not only semi-remotely, but also more precisely than at present

Armed with GPS antenna, which are fixed to the vehicles, sensors are able to detect all the moving parts to offer real-time monitoring of how equipment is performing

“Their whole ethos is about getting feedback and creating the software that operators [can feedback], not the nerds in the backroom. We have a bulldozer with a fully automatic system, you just set your levels, get your green, and off you go,” Lacey adds.

“The great thing about it is that the whole ecosystem is based on the same software, so whether you are using a rover we have over there, or an excavator the interface is always the same.”

This form of artificial intelligence (AI) technology may help decrease the likelihood of accidents associated with manual operations that were considered unavoidable in the past.

Operators can control equipment from a safe distance while ensuring their safety and getting the job done efficiently and effectively.

Droning on

Of all the technology to emerge over the past decade, the humble drone has to be considered the most utilised of all, from the battlefield in Ukraine, to following adventurers climbing mountains, there are few areas where drones are not utilised.

In terms of construction, a report way back in 2019 by PwC forecast that the use of commercial drones could service around £100bn of economic activity by 2025. Almost a third of this would be within the infrastructure sector alone.

Since 2016 drone use has become more commonplace on the construction site, though to a certain extent their use is still limited to site surveys, and casting a birds-eye view of a large site.

Employing drones in construction offers a significant advantage in pinpointing potential safety hazards on-site. Large construction sites often harbour hidden risks that may elude human detection but can be effectively identified by drones.

These hazards include unbalanced platforms or unstable footings, which drones can detect with precision. Additionally, drones can undertake tasks in hazardous areas, such as delivering equipment or conducting measurements at elevated heights, thereby minimising risks to workers.

Drones form one of the key tools needed to undertake remote inspections of a site, or areas of sites that are hard to reach. Remote inspection itself has become much more common in recent years across a range of disciplines.

The HSE is also beginning to utilise remote working to conduct spot checks. Of the 4,500 conducted in 2021, 193 were conducted remotely via video calls; those figures are expected to have grown in the past three years.

Andrew Brown, group health, safety and well-being director at Mace, said that main contractors have learned lessons from the Covid19 pandemic.

“The new safety procedures onsite in response to the pandemic have shown us that we can work more productively and safer on our sites,” he said.

“If, together with the way we deliver, we can standardise these safe working practices across the industry, it will completely transform the way we create buildings and infrastructure.”

He-man of the construction site

“The use of the suit has helped me to focus on my job while not worrying about undue strain or risks to my body. It has also made me think carefully about health and safety practice, such as safe lifting and carrying heavy objects,” says Paul Grant, site technician at Kenoteq.

Grant is part of a UK trial of exo-skeleton equipment to find out whether wearable technology helps on the construction site, and improves the long-term health of those who work in the industry.

According to BE-ST, formerly known as the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre,

44 million workers in the European Union (EU) alone are affected by workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), at a total annual cost in excess of €240bn to the European economy.

BE-ST, the University of Strathclyde, National Manufacturing Institute Scotland have teamed up to take exo-suits out onsite across Scotland to gather feedback from people using them in their normal everyday tasks.

The overall objective of Eskallerate project is to accelerate the adoption of exoskeletons into construction and industrial manufacturing SMEs, where heavy physical work leads to severe health issues, and thereby, strengthen SME competitiveness in the North Sea Region.

The exo-skeleton could be considered the most advanced of a series of wearable additions for site workers that have come to market in the past few years. From smart watches to smart helmets, or smart boots the image of the construction worker of the future is beginning to look a lot more like a Ridley Scott creation than a traditional workman.

Wearable technology has a number of inherent advantages. It can monitor vital signs of construction workers, such as heart rate, and breathing. The technology is also able to detect certain hazardous conditions and also provide real-time information to both the wearer and supervisors off-site.

In case of an accident or unsafe conditions, these tools can alert authorities and even administer first aid, potentially saving lives in the process.

The realms of site safety are beginning to see real change, and build on the safety regimes brought in over the past few decades by the HSE.

With the smart-tech revolution now bearing fruit, the future construction site worker should be safer than ever before.

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Wearable safety gear – what you need to know

Putting Nasa-level technology into the hands of a site worker is one innovation which could gain traction in coming years.

Smart Helmets can detect and monitor potential hazards, armed with sensors to see whether a worker is exposed to dangerous levels of noise, or noxious fumes. The helmets have been considered useful in mining, oil and gas and construction industries.

The technology can also provide navigation systems and augmented technology that can show in real-time what services lay behind walls (to avoid drilling into them) or what site plans should show via a digital twin.

Wearable sensors

Similarly to the smart helmets, laced on various parts of the body, such as the wrists, ankles, or chest, and are used to monitor a range of data. Keeping track of heart rate, body temperature, fatigue levels, and more, this data is used to help workers avoid accidents and injuries by giving them warnings when they are at risk of over-exertion.”

Companies working in this field include Triax Technologies, SafetyAware, Myotec, Wearables Plus, and Monitored.

Smart Boots

Although the steel toe-capped boot remains a staple for site safety equipment in the UK, and has saved many a construction worker from losing a toe or worse, the technology in construction footwear has moved much further.

From padded insoles and breathable lining which can help reduce fatigue through to non-slip soles to improve traction, smart boots are made with pressure sensors which can detect whether a worker has suffered from a fall, and can even call for help.

The boots are also able to be installed with location sensors, allowing construction workers to show where they have been on a site with a level of accuracy that is higher than GPS. Some footwear can also be recharged simply by walking.

Image: Leonardo Santtos/Shutterstock

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