A Strategy for Jobsite Safety
Technology can help keep workers safer on the job
Technology aimed at keeping workers safe seeps through nearly every aspect of today’s construction sites, from fatigue-tracking vehicles to downloadable work orders, to lighter, stronger, and more fashionable workwear.
“A lot of this is still a work in progress, but it’s fun to watch,” explains Carl Heinlein, senior safety consultant at the American Contractors Insurance Group and a board member of the American Society of Safety Professionals, www.assp.org, Park Ridge, Ill.
When technology works, many people don’t mind wearing protective equipment—whether it’s a lanyard, safety glasses, or work boots—because, with nanotechnology, the clothing is now lighter, more comfortable, and offers greater safety buffers, he says.
Sometimes it’s just that simple—manufacturers listening to contractors and creating products that people want to use or wear.
Those smarts extend to interactions between people and machines on a worksite. That means a machine can sense when a person is walking too closely or in its path, or when a driver’s eye flickering indicates he or she might be falling asleep—and the driver’s seat then starts vibrating.
Indeed, the latest trend is for companies to create mesh networks so they can blend several kinds of technologies that connect people and machines, says John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council, www.nsc.org, Itasca, Ill., a center of excellence for health, safety, and environmental management.
“It’s about having every machine, forklift, drill, and lathe talk to (workers’) wearables and smart personal protective equipment,” Dony says. “It’s as simple as putting in sensors and wearables so a lift or crane won’t cause an operator to get crushed from something up above him,” he says.
Solving Crumbling Infrastructure
Machines that inspect infrastructure are getting smarter, too. Two massive bridges in downtown Minneapolis—the historic Stone Arch and the Third Avenue bridges—are using inspection drones to ensure safety to the traveling public by detecting areas of deterioration that need maintenance.
The effort is just one among thousands nationwide to try to stay ahead of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
Indeed, Minneapolis was the site in 2007 of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse into the Mississippi River, killing 13. In 2016, an overpass bridge on Interstate 26 in Orangeburg County, S.C., had to be removed and replaced after a tractor trailer ran into it, killing the driver.
Even following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse crisis back in 2012, roughly 11% of the nation’s 607,000 bridges were considered “structurally deficient,” according to the Federal Highway Admin., www.fhwa.dot.gov, Washington, D.C.
One impact of bridge deterioration is reduced load limits. In 2016, 11.3% of all bridges had reduced load limits, which can cause commercial vehicle operators to carry smaller loads or take circuitous routes, increasing costs, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, www.bts.gov, Washington, D.C.
“in 2012, roughly 11% of the nation’s 607,000 bridges were considered “structurally deficient,”
– Federal Highway Admin.
Today, Minnesota bridge engineers have paired 3D footage from an underwater scanner with aerial drone footage to stitch together above and below views of the bridges. The images can be shared instantly.
“We could see clearly the scour depressions,” says Jennifer Wells, state bridge inspection engineer for the state of Minnesota, based in St. Paul. “That’s difficult to do in the muddy waters of the Mississippi.”
Scour depressions result from turbulent water stripping material away from piers, resulting in exposed piling.
The aerial drone was special, too, because Switzerland-based senseFly, www.sensefly.com, Cheseaux-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, designed it specifically to enhance structure inspections. It can be paired with a cage-encased drone with LED lighting called the Elios from another Switzerland-based company called Flyability, www.flyability.com, Lausanne, Switzerland.
The caged drone can take photos from underneath a bridge to get up-close shots of beams and bearings.
“These drones have really good cameras so they can get a lot more detail up really close,” Wells says. “They also have infrared capabilities and software that stitches together the drones’ imaging into a 3D model so you can measure crack width and length and steel section loss.”
“It’s a digital record and it’s really quick,” she says. “The drone can record images in seconds.”
Inspection drones let jobsite engineers learn new skills and focus on strategizing as they look at the drone’s footage in realtime or as highlighted excerpts, experts say.
“I never thought I’d be taking ground pilot school and working as a bridge inspector,” says Wells, who studied to be a civil engineer.
Since the drones operate via a controller similar to a joystick, Wells says some of the best operators are young workers who are experienced videogame players.
The drones also take over potentially dangerous work and, because of their agility and powerful cameras, can get better and more up-close photos than humans.
“If a space is tight, someone climbing inside hollow or steel-box girders, where access is tight to get through, could easily trip,” Wells says. “It’s easier to send the drone in first. And drones could also go underground and get a good look at a sewer system. It’s like reconnaissance to send the drone in first—and it’s an optimal tool.”
Compared to the cost and time to inspect a bridge with traditional methods, drones have shown they shave nearly a third the time off of labor and slash costs by 60%, Wells says.
Just as important as skilled engineers is the need to post signs warning motorists that a drone is flying overhead so as not to cause distraction on the road.
“It’s as simple as putting in sensors and wearables so a lift or crane won’t cause an operator to get crushed from something up above him.”
– John Dony, National Safety Council
The Emergence of Intelligence
Yet companies are still challenged in using AI (artificial intelligence) and datamining to predict what might cause workers’ deaths, says Dony of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council. Workplace fatalities increased from 2013-2016, to 5,190 people in 2016, the latest data available.
Yet companies are using algorithms to pinpoint potentially dangerous situations about which they’d previously only had hunches about, he says.
Construction companies are leveraging the latest technology to inspect facades during final building phases, for example, and to find cracks in aging infrastructure.
The end goal is to require workers to monitor automated, smart heavy machines; the machines will communicate and assign tasks and analyze the data they collect.
Yet Dony warns that all of the data in the world is no good unless people are smart enough to ask the right questions of that data to cull the most insightful answers.
Sandra Guy is a contributing writer for Constructech magazine