How can digital innovation improve safety within construction?

Through my work within construction and building products, I have worked on two Health & Safety Manager roles over the past four months (strictly speaking these were SHEQ Managers but let’s not split hairs!). Health and safety continues to be at the forefront of senior leader’s minds, with heavy penalties and owners ultimately held responsible for site and plant issues.

It is through interviewing these Health & Safety Managers, along with accompanying research I have compiled when reviewing the markets and key competencies that led me to write this article.  Shifts in the industries performance often dictate priorities. Pre 2008-2009 health and safety, along with sustainability, were key topics. Hey presto, a recession hits and all the news is about efficiencies and process improvement to extract marginal gains in profits. 

With so much interest in technological advances to both onsite construction and industry 4.0 from a manufacturing perspective, I am intrigued to better understand how construction competes from a health and safety perspective and what new technology can bring to improve conditions and key statistics.

The HSE suggest that 3% of construction workers sustained non-fatal injuries last year, which in real terms is around 66,000 people! Additional to this, 43 people very sadly lost their lives and with the HSE reporting almost double the amount of fines in the last 12 months the industry needs to change how it approaches these issues.

Those companies that really invest in mitigating these risks will not only reduce the human cost and fines, but also avoid associated costs of productivity and sick pay but also longer-term issues of culture, morale, customer attraction and employer branding.

Mobile reporting

The use of mobile reporting technologies has seen an increase in reporting and indeed the speed of reporting which in turn increases the pace at which changes are made to avoid near miss incidents. It stands to reason to say that the quicker an issue is dealt with the lesser the chance of injury. Being able to directly input all the necessaries onto a mobile system there and then, is a much better use of time and allows for quicker decision making and action. This action further supports the message to workers as to how important their safety is.

There are also additional benefits such as capturing real-time data, specific location tracking via GPS, voice recordings to provide better descriptions, uploading pictures, videos and so on. Clearly, as well as dealing with immediate issues, the longer term benefits of more easily accessible data are wide ranging.

On-site inspections

For every Health & Safety manager, having ready access to live, accurate information saves a great deal of time especially during site visits from bodies such as HSE and the Environment Agency. As long as the initial data put in is of good quality then it removes the need for countless hours of further input and transfer from paper copies. And with fines on the increase, it makes sense to improve the outcome of the critical meetings. And then, of course, there is the increased use of drones and driverless plant (there are already a number of reports on these technologies however).

Mobile, wearable devices

There are many industries that have already embraced wearable devices. Chemistry and oil and gas, for example, have worked smart communication systems into head-ware, location devises into clothing, alarms for environmental risks into jackets and so on and so forth. Surely there could be a place for more of this within construction? The initial investment could avoid the aforementioned human and financial costs.

Training & e-learning

With over half the UK’s construction firms sighting distinct concern over skills shortage and deepening concerns post-Brexit, talent attraction is a real issue. Younger workers entering the market are placing greater emphasis on personal development, a robust programme combined with an exceptional safety record is a strong message to send out to employees.

All the virtual data collected can be used very effectively during induction and development programmes, photos and videos offer real experience for those learning within the industry. Embedding the importance of health & safety during the impressionable periods is surely a ‘no-brainer’. Likewise, many talented youngsters are perturbed from entering what is perceived as a dirty, often wet and cold environment. By smoothing the edges around safety and in doing so creating a more hospitable environment, surely children (and parents for that matter) are more likely to consider construction as an option.

What about culture?

Almost every health & safety leader is trying to develop a culture where safety is at its heart. Culture change starts with showing people an alternative way of working and then ingraining it into ‘the way we do things’.

However, culture change can be hard. A good place to start is by improving workers knowledge, and having access to more relevant information, such as real images and live videos of before and after incidents – these are of huge value for training for both new and existing staff. Obviously, incident prevention is most important, however greater levels of engagement in health & safety processes reduce the risk of recurrent accidents. This raises a further point in that logging more accurate and real-time data generates a platform for more comparisons across jobs, sites and so forth.

That said, people are still key

In many ways, topics that rely greatly on compliance offer themselves less to a creative approach. Health & safety leaders now need more in their locker than a strict understanding of safety and compliance. Embracing some digital transformation may be the best way to improve things for our workers and mitigate the human and capital costs of accidents at work.

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