Every day, on average, two people in the United States who work in construction do not return home to their families because they were killed on the job. And every day construction workers rely on personal protection equipment (PPE) to help keep them safe by making them more visible to others. But why are we relying on products and systems that are inherently passive and do not leverage the technology available today? Why do we continue to use passive rather than active safety tools to ensure workers get home safely?
Construction work is dangerous and the costs of injuries are high, both on a personal level as well as a business level. In 2011, there were over 119,000 injuries and over 700 deaths in the United States alone. The average comprehensive cost per injury varies from $27,000 for a possible (or “near miss”) injury to over $4.4 million for a fatality. The cost of injuries and fatalities is economically staggering, but that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the cost to the families, friends, and coworkers of the people who get hurt or die.
Leading construction companies and industry organizations have been working for years to continuously improve the overall level of safety on the jobsite. These groups are not just concerned with having a low experience modification rate (EMR) but with creating real “safety maturity”. To that end, these companies and organizations are spending time and money to build out teams that are focused on more than just compliance. This is where the real shift is occurring in jobsite safety. It is an overall shift in the cultural acceptance of accidents on the job.
Accidents are no longer just part of doing regular business. They are viewed as a sign of running a poor business. Safety managers are most directly responsible for implementing and overseeing safety onsite, and their credentials now influence the awarding of major projects. The awarding of a recent, massive multibillion-dollar job in New York City had, as part of the bid review process, very specific qualifications for the site safety manager. This is going to become much more commonplace in the future as the role of the safety manager becomes more and more important. Many owners are now requiring safety professionals with high-level qualifications to be a part of a winning bid.
There remains a real gap in the availability of innovative products that help support this attitude of safety maturity versus simple compliance. There are a few companies that are pushing innovative software solutions for the field and office to collaborate more efficiently. However, most of these software solutions are not targeted at improving safety. There remains a need for better products aimed at safety, especially in the construction industry. Innovative hardware safety products and solutions are especially lagging. Up to now the majority of safety products have been focused on passive rather than active alert methods. The problem with passive alerts using retro-reflective materials is that they are only as effective as the third-party light source reflecting them, such as an 18-wheeler’s headlights as it comes around the bend at 65 miles an hour (105 km/h). Today we are still relying on the reflective vest as the primary means for illuminating a person at risk — a product that came out in the 1970s and hasn't significantly changed in 40 years. While it is intuitively obvious that high-visibility clothing should make its wearer safer, to date there are no specific studies on the effectiveness of reflective safety vests. Still, reflective safety vests are required as part of the uniform for most professionals working in construction, as well as many other industries including law enforcement, fire safety, and air-traffic control. The time is past due to redefine what it means to be safe and to modernize safety solutions that are trapped in the past.
Technology is changing rapidly. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and new battery technologies rewrite the rules for the illumination solutions available on the job. Composite materials provide stronger, lighter equipment than the gear used by those who taught us the trades. Wireless communication is changing how we communicate on the jobsite via Wi-Fi and long term evolution (LTE) networks. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology increases the means by which we can view and see people and equipment on the job. Technologies such as accelerometers and gyroscopes help measure the speed, distance, and orientation of wearable technology solutions.
People in the construction industry understand that it is time for a new generation of safety gear. Many construction industry leaders are driving the change inside their organizations. The motivation and the technology exist to promote real change. We are at a tipping point. There is a real opportunity to deliver a better safety experience through innovative products — products that radically improve the safety of people working in risky environments — making them more visible and more productive. Doing so has the potential to increase productivity and reduce on-site accidents, which in turn will reduce worker compensation claims, lower insurance costs, and, most importantly, get workers home safely every night.
The Next Step
The creation of an Active Safety System linking both hardware and software is the next major step in personal safety. It will create an active jobsite where supervisors, safety managers, and equipment operators will be able to identify everyone on site visually or virtually at all times. This will aid field operations in a variety of different ways.
Today when there is a jobsite evacuation (e.g., caused by a chemical spill), the only way to know if everyone is off the jobsite and accounted for is for the safety manager to do a manual headcount. With an active jobsite, the safety managers will be able to check a tablet or smartphone and know immediately if everyone is clear of the evacuation area. Currently when a crane moves a load overhead on a jobsite someone on the ground directs the crane operator with hand signals and a radio. The crane operator may blow a horn to notify people that there is a load in the air while the rigger yells at people to get them out of the path of the crane. Instead, if the crane operator had a live monitor feed, he would see everyone in the path of the load and could proactively prevent injuries associated with falling materials by avoiding them.
Again, today if you need to locate someone outside your visual sight line, you call him or her using a mobile phone and proceed to track down the individual. On an active jobsite, you will be able to immediately locate the person or notify them of an issue. There are a lot of reasons why this could be important: secured areas, two people zones, injury (man-down) situations, and a host of other reasons. On an active jobsite, if someone falls and gets knocked out with no one around, the speed and direction of the fall as well as any following movement could be measured automatically and a warning automatically sent to the safety manager. All of these scenarios become possible on an active jobsite where the gear and hardware that people wear are connected by a communications layer to an intelligent software platform.
Today jobsites are closed and isolated silos of independent systems and workflow. In the future, they will be connected and open. This will require the combination of wearable technologies and integrated software solutions as part of an overall safety system. Location tracking systems (e.g., global positioning system, or GPS, and RFID) and advanced visual alerts (LEDs) will be commonplace.
Real safety maturity is about more than just passive policies and solutions. It is about proactively working to prevent hazardous situations when possible and actively monitoring and communicating any risks. Safety should not be reliant on passive behaviors and products; it should be guided by an integrated, active system. Forward-thinking field personnel, managers, and companies are demanding better safety tools and solutions to help move the industry forward and keep their workers safe. We are at a tipping point where passive becomes passé and active becomes synonymous with safety.
About the Author
Max Baker is the chief executive officer (CEO) of ILLUMAGEAR, a Seattle, Washington-based company focused on improving worker safety in risky environments and bringing innovative products to market that define a new category of safety gear. For more information, contact: ILLUMAGEAR, www.illumagear.com
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