Construction has always been a hands-on, physical industry; one that, in some respects, has historically been resistant to the digital revolution around it. But as construction finds itself at the centre of national efforts for our country’s economic recovery, what role can digital safety innovation play in keeping jobsites operational in a ‘COVIDSafe’ way — both amid and beyond COVID-19? And could the ‘Internet of Things’ and its technological quest for new ways to facilitate a pressing transition across this industry to a more digitised and automated worksite environment hold the key to construction and other industrial sectors’ future success?
As construction work increases across Australia following the easing of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, ensuring the safety of workers from the ongoing threat of COVID-19 remains the industry’s number one priority. The issue of safety is nothing new, but the complexity of construction sites, new safe work regulations and an increased desire for firms and sites to be seen to be ‘taking action’ by industry bodies and policymakers has created a platform to relook at site safety — and consider new approaches. Like many aspects of our lives impacted by COVID-19, a good starting point is to accept that things will never be the same. From large groups gathering for smokos to staggered hours, shared equipment to strict sanitisation, the industry will continue to adapt.
The new normal
In year two of the pandemic, it is still unclear what the ‘new normal’ will be for construction. But two things are certain, while workers may be resistant to restrictions, they want to work. And while site operators and managers will see dips in productivity, due to regulations, they need to maximise safety and minimise risk. According to a report in the US by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, COVID-19 mitigation has seen construction site productivity drop by an average of 17.9%. In the UK, a report by Turner and Townsend cites an average figure of 20%. The numbers in Australia are less clear, but the impact is undeniable.
This environment has created a great deal of tension. And such tension has been heightened by a reliance on manual monitoring and processes, which has also left the industry searching for a sweet spot, which may not exist. That one spot that sits between regulation and productivity — and helps them to remain profitable. Another certainty is that technology is playing a significant role in Australia’s COVID-19 recovery. And at the heart of each new technology we see launched — from mobile apps that track our location to fever readers at restaurants — is safety.
COVIDSafe technologies: the Internet of Things
‘COVIDSafe’ technologies have been deployed across construction. Common examples include digital project management tools that decrease the number of people onsite, supply chain software to increase the efficiency of material delivery and sensors to track the wearing of face masks. Construction has always been a very hands-on, physical industry and often resistant to the digital revolution around it. So, finding new types of technology that help facilitate the transition to a more digitised and automated work site environment will be the key to construction’s future success. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a relatively untapped technology in the construction industry, but it has been proven in sectors that share similar safety challenges.
IoT is a term used to describe a group of technologies which are connected to the internet and, using sensors and cameras, can monitor, track and collect data in different environments. This data can then be analysed and shared so processes can be tweaked, errors identified and efficiencies gained. At its most basic level, it is used by councils to track when city bins are full and need collecting. At its most sophisticated, it can be used to automatically identify an individual with a fever, and alert authorities, in a crowd of hundreds of people. A 2020 analysis by IoT Analytics showed that IoT was most commonly deployed in manufacturing and industrial settings (22%), followed by transportation (15%) and energy (14%).
Other industries’ IoT innovations
Like construction, the mining industry faces unique safety challenges linked to hazardous materials, harsh environments and heavy machinery, but they are also a leading light in how IoT technology can be used to minimise safety risks. A major consideration in underground mining is providing workers with clean air. A key to ventilation and toxicity management is monitoring and analysing airflow.
One solution that has been trialled in Western Australia is a ‘digital canary’, which allows workers to check air quality from the surface before entering a mine. The smart system uses air quality sensors to measures gases present at different points in the mine. The system is linked to oxygen pumps which can be automatically turned on or off to regulate the air and keep workers safe. All of the data is wirelessly transmitted ‘back to base’ and closely monitored.
Construction can take cues from industries like mining, but the industry also has its own unique set of safety challenges. The current trend is a very linear approach to the problem. Construction companies are seeking out one technology to solve one safety problem. This is a short-term approach, which does not maximise the potential IoT systems offer. IoT systems deliver the most benefit when devices and sensors are linked, talking to each other, and creating rich datasets — the full picture — about people, assets and the work environment.
In manufacturing, IoT devices are commonly used to track machinery and assets — particularly in factory settings. Recently, a major aviation manufacturer deployed what it calls an ‘enterprise sensor integration’ software platform. Using a suite of wireless sensors and devices worn by workers, and installed on machinery and factory assets, the system combines all of the data collected (location and movement) to create a complete picture of the ‘health’ of the factory floor. This has enhanced safety and productivity. There are hundreds of IoT sensors and devices on the market today. Smart cameras can measure physical distance and fever, and monitor face masks and other personal protective equipment, while smart sensors can monitor air and water quality, and wearables can be used to pinpoint workers in real time.
Harnessing the potential in construction
For construction to harness the potential of IoT and to maximise safety, there needs to be a cultural shift from products (individual devices) to platforms (solutions). IoT vendors are also starting to make this shift. New solutions with safety in mind are becoming increasingly common. For example, a new system in Australia has been designed to track tools and equipment, using a visual operating system monitored online, with the idea of minimising distractions, and enabling workers to focus on their core task of building. Real-time location systems are also on the rise, recognising the need to increase safety when workers and machinery work side by side.
These systems use bluetooth tags that can be worn or attached to equipment. The information they capture can also be used to create digital twins of work sites — essentially a game-like representation of every asset and its location. We are also seeing new types of smart badges, worn like lanyards. Using wireless technology, they can track workers at close proximity and enable workplaces to back-trace if there is a COVID-19 outbreak or a health, safety and environment incident. There is no doubt that the adoption of technology will grow from the current pandemic and this can only have positive safety outcomes. However, it will be important for the construction industry to think more broadly about the technologies it chooses, and how they work together to mitigate COVID-19 risks.
IoT technology has incredible potential for the industry but it is not a silver bullet solution. Facilitating the shift from manual to automated tasks will be where IoT delivers the most value. If successful, construction workers and site managers will be freed up and be able to focus on the core task of building. With construction making up 13% of Australia’s annual gross domestic product, money will not be an issue. For this digital safety evolution to happen, the industry will need to think differently, find the right technology partners and, like most initiatives that seek to shift culture, invest in the right training.