Construction industry globallys has started to use high-tech gear to meet safety challenges at sites and around heavy equipment Image Credit: Gulf News archives

It seems to be an occupational hazard. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), data from a number of industrialised countries shows that construction workers are three to four times more likely to die from accidents at work than their colleagues in other occupations. In the developing world, the risks associated with construction work may be three to six times greater.

During the opening ceremony of the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, held in Singapore in September 2017, ILO Director General Guy Ryder noted that the economic impact of not investing in worker safety and health issues worked out to 3.94 per cent of global GDP — $2.99 trillion (Dh10.98 trillion). However, on a brighter note, he added, “Forty million youth are entering the labour market this year, and they are the best-educated generation the world has ever seen. We must take advantage of this demographic dividend and unleash the potential and creativity of these young people.”

Enhancing the safety culture

Though change is already afoot, and the construction industry is increasingly turning to innovative tools and high-tech gear to meet safety challenges at sites and around heavy equipment. And yes, making the most of that is ubiquitous smartphone. The Dodge Data & Analytics Safety Management in the Construction Industry 2017 report highlights that the high rate of adoption of smartphones and tablets has facilitated the use of a multitude of mobile tools for safety purposes, such as tapping into camera feeds and the use of safety inspection and GPS/ mapping apps.

Similarly, building information modelling (BIM) is improving safety. “Not only is there a dramatic increase of 27 percentage points from 2012 (42 per cent) to 2017 (69 per cent) of contractors reporting a positive impact from BIM, but respondents who use BIM consistently use more safety practices and experience more benefits from their safety investments than those who don’t,” says the report, adding that BIM also enhances the ability to identify possible site hazards before construction begins.

The potential for technology to transform worker safety is especially huge in regions such as the UAE that rely heavily on labour, according to the Annual Economic Report 2017. The industry tracker MEED said in its April analysis of innovation in construction that the adoption of digital technology in the construction industry has reached “a tipping point and few countries are better positioned to take advantage of this than the UAE”. An example is the rising popularity of 3D printers and robotic constructors — Dubai is home to the world’s first 3D-printed office where robotic arms did most of the heavy lifting and excavation work, cutting down on the risk to human life. In fact, the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy envisages that 25 per cent of all the emirate’s buildings will be 3D-printed by 2030.

Industry resource Construction Executive points out that various technologies are “synergistically working together” and transforming the way construction currently unfolds. This includes innovative use of drones to track progress and monitor the workforce, laser scanners to show the true condition of the equipment or the construction site, big data and Internet of things to collect hundreds of readings to improve analysis and forecasting, and even the use of wearables. “The construction industry has tremendous potential for smart glasses and hardhats that can provide visualisation, augmented and mixed reality. These visualisation tools can provide improvements in accuracy, efficiency and safety.” Meanwhile, other wearables, such as technology-enhanced safety vests, smart watches and health trackers, are being used “to monitor workers motions and movements to enhance safety, increase productivity and reduce risk”.

Interestingly, a rather obvious tool that has become popular in the UAE — where the workforce speaks different languages — is videos. These have turned out to be an effective way to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers and educate workers in the use of heavy equipment and construction site safety.