How technology can cultivate a culture of greater safety

How technology can cultivate
a culture of greater safety

by STACY SCOPANOAutodesk | July 25, 2015

The Europeans I’ve met in the last decade tend to get a particular bit of amusement from the temperature warning labels we Americans have come to emblazon on store-bought cups of coffee. Most Americans will instantly recognize that the purpose for these warning labels isn’t necessarily aligned with the pursuit of customer comfort, but rather serve as disclaimers in the event of potential legal action associated with a morning beverage mishap. 

In construction, the litigious nature of our culture can be found steeped in many practices, including, most notably, in contract structure, the allocation of risk and insurance solutions, and in providing the subtext for our generally accepted project management principles.

Despite this, present day safety programs have worked to implement a number of innovations in the way we train, monitor, deploy and develop worker safety solutions. The challenge with construction in particular is that it tends to employ such great numbers of the population, relative to other high-risk industries, and continues to trend at the top of the list for worker fatalities. 


a command-and-control approach inevitably TURNS an inspector into the silo of safety knowledge and expertise ON A project 


The Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2013 record showing a total of 828 construction worker fatalities for that year is familiar to many of us. Translate that into a run rate of approximately 2.5 construction deaths per day in the United States and immediately the problem gains perspective. 

In response, builders and capital projects tend to deploy a command-and-control approach to their safety programs, which focus on documenting non-compliance, unsafe conditions or outcomes in reactive ways. In this type of environment, the key stakeholder inevitably becomes the safety inspector, who can evolve into a policing role and unwittingly becomes the silo of safety knowledge and expertise for the project. This scenario leads to a safety program that doesn’t drive actual field personnel behaviors, nor help productivity and budget impacts, directly related to improved experience modification rate. 

However, in many ways, technology today allows the safety manager to create a culture of safety that can be shared throughout a construction project. Structured checklists can be digitally standardized, posted to the cloud and deployed onto mobile computing devices to ensure a proactive and distributed approach to safety compliance. Everyone can become a participant, replacing the safety manager acting as the sole policeman. 

Mobile computing-oriented safety solutions can now offer a host of workflows for any worker or team to document an issue during a site walk or simple daily observation. This connected team and program allows for quicker visibility to issues, root cause analyses, and reporting that can be leveraged to educate and course-correct safety programs on an ongoing basis. 

New Tech Tools

The protracted market recovery and its resulting competitive pressures are also creating another wave of disruption for the convergence of technology and safety. As building information modeling (BIM) tools become more commonplace in design and construction, especially for risky high-profile projects or complex facilities, builders are incorporating advances in BIM technologies into their business development conversations. The growing reliability of the presence of building models for these types of projects, combined with the expanding capabilities that teams are developing in model-based use cases, leave safety programs a ripe space for further advancement. 

For those who are unfamiliar with BIM, it is a process that uses 3D digital models containing both building geometry as well as meta-data about the function and performance of building elements. BIM supports building projects throughout their entire lifecycle — from pre-planning and design through construction and operation. Unlike with traditional 2D drawings, the data in a BIM-led project remains consistent, coordinated, and more accurate across all stakeholders, including architects, engineers, construction firms and owners, resulting in building and infrastructure projects that can be completed faster, more economically — and potentially more safely. 

The area of applications that BIM can serve in advancing construction safety is quite broad. Project managers have historically incorporated project schedule data into models for the purpose of 4D client presentations. Today we’re seeing the expansion of these simulation studies to include safety managers and project foreman for the purposes of visual project orientation, in-depth job hazard analysis and time studies that assist the safety planning process. 

Due to the fact that most models are developed to express the built facility’s end state, these same project managers are now supplementing models with further construction means and methods for a variety of reasons. Developing shop drawings for temporary work, bills of materials/schedules, site and equipment logistics, sequencing and re-use analysis all become part of the virtual walk-through that managers now have at their disposal. The resulting advanced visualizations now become a powerful bridge between safety plan development and team mobilization through instructive safety training deliverables. 

Early Detection 

The horizon is ripe with research, academics, project teams and technology providers looking towards advancing rule-based algorithms to automate the detection of job hazards from building model geometry and the embedded construction sequence of activities. Focusing these types of analyses on “The Fatal Four” (falls, caught between objects, electrocution, struck by objects) can help address the causes of up to 57% of construction worker deaths, according to OSHA statistics. Rules that combine fall protection codes, geometric clearance checks, as well as proximity checks to safety equipment and devices can all be purposed as early detection systems for site risks. 

Few would deny the acceleration of technology in both our personal and professional lives. In the field of construction, this is particularly true when it comes to BIM and its potential to positively impact worker safety. 

Navigating the emerging landscape of digital solutions creates new challenges for construction professionals in balancing digital innovation against disruption and productivity. Those managers that best understand and take advantage of these digital opportunities are poised to power a real shift in site safety management. Enabling project teams to develop resources to proactively plan, effectively communicate and dynamically contribute to safety programs will move us from the tradition of command-and-control, to one of informed and distributed safe work behaviors. 

The author is the senior industry strategy manager for building construction at Autodesk. He also serves on the NIBS Offsite Construction Council, and as Technology Sub-forum chair for BIMForum.

This article first appeared online at Workplace HR & Safety magazine, published by Columbia Books, LLC.

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