In the search for more efficient and safe methods of executing construction operations, the last two decades have ushered in an influx of emerging technologies for incorporation in several aspects of construction projects. For instance, building information modeling (BIM), wearable exoskeletons, immersive technologies, internet of things and sensing technologies, smart camera systems, photogrammetry, LiDAR, and unmanned aerial vehicles have gained some traction in the construction industry. Construction practitioners and researchers are highly motivated to explore these novel technologies owing to continuously reported flat or declining productivity and high fatality rates. In 2019, 20% of worker fatalities in the U.S. were recorded in the construction industry, representing the highest deaths recorded amongst all private trades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In increasing calls for construction innovation, researchers have decried the saturation of current construction safety programs. Despite developmental efforts and marketing, the adoption of technology for occupational safety and health is relatively slow. Interestingly, the current pandemic presents an opportunity to increase the use of technologies for safety and health in the construction industry.
Thanks to Covid-19, construction organizations have to develop innovative processes to deal with disruptions in the labor, equipment, and material supply. Typically, construction workers function in a complex, dynamic, and highly hazardous setting; hence, there is a need to re-define safe work practices to incorporate new Center of Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. This need has led to the adoption of staggered schedules, phased-material deliveries, rigorous housekeeping programs, and a push for supervisors to focus on low-risk activities. Moreover, the CDC recommended the wearing of cloth face coverings as a protective measure in addition to social distancing (i.e., staying at least 6 feet away from others). Recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provided a Construction Work guidance to support the safe return to work. This guidance includes implementing Engineering Controls (any changes to decrease the need for N95 respirators, for example) and Administrative Controls (Standard operating procedures that reflect CDC guidelines, Covid-19 training for employees, and screening calls). For example, OSHA recommends that employers erect plastic sheeting barriers when workers need to occupy specific indoor worksite areas where they are in close contact (less than 6 feet) with someone suspected of having or known to have COVID-19. In this interim guidance, OSHA has provided a risk-level exposure template that employers (workers) could utilize in conducting job hazard analysis on work tasks.
After assessing the current situation, the authors believe that providing safe work practices during the Covid-19 Pandemic presents a remarkable opportunity for increased technology acceptance in construction organizations. One class of technologies that the authors believe will undoubtedly play a significant role in improving construction worker safety during this pandemic is wearable sensing devices (WSDs), which can be applied for personalized construction safety monitoring. The functions of WSDs include physiological monitoring, environmental sensing, proximity detection, and location tracking. One feasible and practical way WSDs can help Covid-19 response strategies is to support and improve current measures designed to keep workers 6 feet apart. For this, the proximity sensing features of selected devices will trigger alarms (usually vibrations or lights) to alert workers (and management) when they are close to each other, especially in OSHA-designated choke points where workers are forced to stand together, such as hallways, hoists and elevators, ingress and egress points, break areas, and buses. Another way is to ensure that workers’ location is adequately tracked to know workers’ daily routes. This feature will enable near real-time monitoring and routine contact tracing. Technologies currently available include estimote, Instant-Trace, and SaferMe. One exciting advantage of this class of technology is the relatively low cost. Existing research indicates that an IoT-supported wearable device could cost about $100 per clip-on device, with an additional networking cost ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 per month. Larger construction companies could easily maximize economy of scale to generate a greater return on investment. Interestingly, the cost of implementing WSDs has consistently reduced over the last five years, mainly due to the increasing competition among vendors.
By recognizing and highlighting the critical role that technology could play in managing disruptions, such as Covid-19, in the construction industry, it is clear that industry practitioners must continue to test and implement innovative devices on job sites.