The history of safety in construction is fraught with accidents and fatalities, with true focus on improving safety only emerging within the last 50 – 80 years. In fact, at the time of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, it was expected that one person would die for every $1 million spent. Since that time, a variety of regulations have been passed at both national and local levels, and the construction industry has also worked to increase awareness and education related to keeping workers safe onsite and encourage construction safety innovation.
Over time, advances in technology have made safe work practices increasingly achievable. In addition to safer tools and items like fall protection harnesses, netting and PPE protocols, advanced technologies like software programs, robotics and virtual reality are increasing access to education and the ability to complete work items while avoiding injuries or fatalities.
Today we explore the history of safety, the increased technologies available and look at what the future may hold for continuing efforts to improve the health and wellness of construction workers.
The OSH Act of 1970 – The Foundation of OSHA
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created the occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is more commonly referred to as OSHA. The goal was to ensure the health and safety of American workers by creating and enforcing safety standards; providing research, training, and education; and working with employers in order to promote safe work practices. Construction is now highly regulated by OSHA which, over time, has led to significant reductions in injuries, illnesses, and fatalities on jobsites.
Spurred by OSHA regulations, insurance providers, and both public and private companies, the construction industry has also taken on the continued improvement of safe work practices. Driven by demand, suppliers have simultaneously worked to increase technologies on construction tools and equipment to help further reduce worker injuries.
Improved Fall Protection
Fall protection is a big piece of the safety puzzle and was first worn in the 1920’s. The systems have evolved from simple waist belts to today’s modern systems that are more comfortable and backed by industry research. Modern systems are designed not only for life preservation, but also to minimize injury from the shock of hitting the end of the line in the event a fall does occur.
According to OSHA, falls are still the leading cause of death in construction. The installation and use of proper fall protection measures saves lives. Fall protection is now required when working at heights of 6 feet or greater. It also applies at heights of less than 6 feet when working near dangerous equipment.
OSHA also requires that employers provide fall protection training to their employees on an annual basis.
Technology of tools and ladders have continued to evolve to prevent falls, strains, and sprains. For instance, there are now ladders being produced that can be used in a variety of positions, where prior versions could only be used in a single manner, such as an a-frame or against a wall. The added flexibility of the newer ladders reduces the chance that it will be misused and potentially cause injury.
Other tool improvements include clutched drill motors to prevent torque caused fractures when they bind, vacuum attachments, to control airborne hazards such as silica, and battery powered tools, reducing the dependency on electrical cords. Additionally, employers now have several options to choose from when considering tool tethers and lanyards, reducing the likelihood of dropped tools. These small changes to how tools function significantly reduce injuries.
PPE and Wearable Technology
One of the more basic measures being used to improve worker safety is personal protective equipment (PPE). More widespread and universal use of basic PPE has greatly improved the day-to-day safety of workers on construction sites. Basic PPE includes high visibility safety vests, hard hats, safety glasses, gloves, and work boots. These basic items are greatly enhanced by the development of integrated heating and cooling mechanisms or materials, anti-fog treatments, and cut-free fabrics. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, additional items such as cloth face coverings, face shields, and long sleeves have been added to that list.
Along with standard PPE, there have been advances in wearable technology and tracking mechanisms such as smart watches, hard hats, vests, boots, and glasses. These trackers can look for fatigue, dehydration, or excessive repetitive motions as well as monitor for the presence of hazardous gases. While these products aren’t highly utilized currently, it’s likely just a matter of time before they’re commonplace.
3-D Modeling, Video and Software Systems
Modern times have brought the emergence of construction safety innovation and technology like 3D modeling. These technologies optimize our ability to plan for safety. For instance, virtual representations of full buildings can help plan for scaffolding erection, access routes, and attachment locations for safe tie-off points. Proper planning is the best prevention for accidents, and the virtual modeling now available allows that kind of planning to take place long before the work onsite even begins.
In addition to physical technology, software has become a great tool for improving safety on jobsites. Software programs can be utilized to track safety audits and inventory, collaborate across multiple jobsites, and provide training in offsite locations. Often this information can be parsed and reported on, providing valuable analytical data which can be used to provide further insights into project safety. Using data collected in the field, companies can identify dangerous or risky patterns and take steps to mitigate potential incidents or provide additional training where needed.
Another more modern innovation, video technology, has made a great impact on construction in a variety of ways. Tracking progress, weather conditions, and people onsite allows for greater accountability and transparency related to project conditions. Video recordings can provide:
- Historic documentation
- Evidence in the event of an incident
- Learning opportunities
Cameras are utilized in a stationary manner to watch construction, as part of motion sensing security systems, and in equipment and vehicles. Drones are often used for documentation purposes, as well as to explore compromised structures or record active construction while keeping people out of harm’s way.
Safety Technology of the Future
We are starting to see technologies that are even more sophisticated, such as Hilti’s exoskeleton. A variety of companies are working on exoskeleton technologies to provide support and physical enhancements to human labor, especially when it comes to high-risk activities like heavy lifting and repetitive motions.
Another emerging construction safety innovation is artificial intelligence which is making its way into safety, with smart video and smart goggles helping to identify hazards and predict issues before exposing workers to those hazards.
Proper planning and prevention is the best way to ensure worker safety, so improved technologies will only help reduce the instance of injuries and fatalities in construction. While we can’t predict exactly which of these technological advances will be implemented, the possibilities are exciting to consider.
Implementing Technology in the Workplace
The modern construction industry is well aware of the importance of maintaining and improving safety on jobsites but, it isn’t always easy to get individuals to adhere to optimal safe work practices. The key to implementing new safety measures requires that the workplace culture be open and accepting of new means and methods. Improving and increasing safety is a team effort; all parties from leadership to laborer must be willing to accept changes and enforce them.
Communication and collaboration to share knowledge are imperative, and technology is only helpful if properly utilized, shared, and implemented. Some characteristics of a great safety culture include:
- A passion for improvement;
- Buy-in from the top down and bottom up;
- Patience while new processes and procedures are implemented and accepted;
- Cooperation and communication amongst all workers;
- Sharing of lessons learned.
If this kind of culture is in place, then the implementation of new technologies will be better received and more easily implemented.
Here at Perlo, we put great emphasis on safety, construction safety innovation and finding ways to improve every day. We also strive to match our everyday actions with our Perlo Practices, creating a genuine, inclusive environment to increase health and wellness for our people.