From cars to construction: Automobile technologies could make your job site safer

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By now you have surely driven in cars that illuminate your side view mirror when someone is in your blind spot, vibrate your steering wheel when you stray out of your lane and beep when you’re about to back up over your trash can. Your car might even have cruise control functions that automatically regulate your speed and braking based on how close you are to other vehicles. Cars use a combination of cameras and sensors to determine how far an object is from your bumper. The sensor is constantly analyzing the camera’s video feed in real time and alerts you with a vibration, beep or flashing light when you are too close to something.

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Cameras and sensors that work in concert could help make construction sites more safe.

If having this technology in your car has become novel, maybe it’s time to incorporate it on your construction site. While cameras and sensors are mostly used on job sites for security, these car technologies could monitor a whole range of things to maintain quality, efficiency and safety. But let’s focus on safety for now since one in five worker fatalities occur in construction. Cameras and sensors strategically placed on buildings, vehicles and vests, gloves and hard hats could help minimize the Fatal Four:

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Cameras and sensors could keep construction workers out of harm’s way by alerting the worker and the excavator operator that danger looms.

  1. Falls: Sensors could warn a worker if they are about to walk into a hole or sense when a guardrail is broken or missing. It could let someone know when a ladder is being used too far from the work that needs to be done so somebody doesn’t overreach and fall. Workers could also be reminded when they should be tied off and that they shouldn’t jump across scaffolding.
  2. Electrocutions: Sensors could tell electricians when an unsafe electric current is running through scaffolding near them or if there’s a live wire on site. They could notify someone if an electrical panel was ajar or if wire nuts or electrical tape aren’t appropriately adhered. Sensors and backup cams could also alert a crane operator when they are working too close to power lines.
  3. Struck by object: Wearable technology that uses sensors and cameras could vibrate when the worker is in the path of a moving object or vehicle. They could even cut the ignition switch if that vehicle was about to hit something or someone. This technology could also alert a crane or excavator operator when someone or something was in their blindspot. Sensors can also make sure cranes and other machinery are safely grounded.
  4. Caught in/between objects: This technology could automatically turn off a scissor lift that was about to trap someone against a ceiling. They could also alert someone if they are between two objects that could potentially pin them.

At the same time, 360-degree cameras with sensors could be mounted to a safety manager’s hardhat to literally give them eyes in the back of their head. The sensors would not only alert them if something outside their periphery was amiss or dangerous, but they would have the ability to record and survey the site to review later.

Still not convinced that this is ready for primetime? Well, the biggest proof point that these car technologies can be incorporated into wearable technologies for construction is Toyota’s Project BLAID. Worn over the shoulders, this device for blind people uses cameras and sensors to detect objects in the user’s surroundings the same way cars do. BLAID has speakers and vibration motors that help users locate bathrooms, escalators, stairs and doors. Given the fact that Toyota successfully migrated these cameras and sensors from cars to wearables, it’s easy to imagine how this technology could be used on a construction worker to help make the job site safer.

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Throwback Thursday: “Taking your brass”

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Whether it’s sharing your all-time favorite Atari video game or a photo of your sister’s second birthday party, Thursdays have given us all the opportunity to proudly throw it back. So in honor of Throwback Thursdays, we will occasionally post about antiquated, and sometimes comical, construction methods that have given way to some of the biggest innovations in our industry. Please share your Throwback Thursday ideas in the comment section at the bottom of this post! 

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Anyone who worked construction before or during the 1960s and 70s probably has tangible memories of plucking a brass tag off a wooden pegboard when they arrived on a job site. Back in the day, general contractors employed tradesmen directly and the daily ritual known as “taking your brass” was how the GC tracked everyone’s hours.

The tradesmen each had a tag with a number on it that corresponded to the number on their hardhat. After the workers pocketed their tags each morning, the time keeper would record the missing tags. Starting at 3:30 p.m., the timekeeper would return to the board to note the time each tag was returned so he could log how long everyone worked and how much they should be paid.

On payday, a line formed in front of an armored car that doled out wages … in cash!

Suffolk Construction General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh coordinated  brass-tag systems early in his career before he joined Suffolk. He said some people would have their friend pick up their tag if they were going to be late or miss work. “But we always had someone watching the board,” Greenhalgh said. “It usually worked out pretty well. It was just a lot of work, there were no copy machines, we had no fax machine and everything was calculated by hand.”

On Wednesday nights, the project’s onsite timekeeper, accountant and office manager would stay until 8 or 9 p.m. calculating the payroll. The hardest part, Greenhalgh said, was doing math by hand to deduct union dues and taxes.

At the time, unions stipulated that workers had to be paid in cash. So on smaller jobs, the accountant would go to the bank first thing Thursday morning and bring cash back to the job site, where they would stuff envelopes for each worker. On larger jobs, they reported the earnings to the bank and waited for the armored car to arrive. “There was no other way to do it,” Greenhalgh said. “That was the way it was done. We spent the time to make sure it was right and make sure everybody got paid.”

The brass tag system was eventually abolished in the 70s when the unions abandoned their cash payment rule. At that point the foremen simply tracked everyone’s time each day and walked the site to distribute paper checks on payday. Eventually computers streamlined the process in the mid 80s. Today, foremen still track time but most workers are paid via direct deposit.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe we relied on brass tags for one of the most important transactions in our industry. Thinking about logging all those hours and doing the payroll by hand is like having that nightmare where you’re back in your college stats class. And the armored car! Well, that story is just the perfect TBT.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Justin Rice with input from Northeast General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at jrice@suffolk.com or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.

Upbrella turns conventional construction on its head

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Ever since you started building, you’ve erected buildings from the ground up. Whether it was your first set of Legos or your first high-rise tower, you basically started at the bottom and worked towards the top. It’s hard to imagine that bedrock of conventional construction being turned on its head. It’s hard to imagine reversing that order by installing the roof first, and then erecting the rest of the structure later. It seems crazy. Well, it’s not.

Montreal-based Upbrella Construction is taking exactly that top down approach to building. And their patented system doesn’t just represent a new way of thinking, it’s also safer and more efficient than traditional construction.

Under my Upbrella

Growing up in Montreal, Upbrella Construction founder Joey Larouche was one of those kids building Legos from the ground up. But after working as a mechanical engineer that developed lifts for heavy machinery on automobile assembly lines, he realized those principles could be applied to construction.

“I like to come up with ideas that are simple, can be used very widely in the world and are extremely different from what was being done before,” Larouche told us. “That’s the way I do business.”

So how does Upbrella actually work?

Here’s the high-level explanation: The foundation and first floor of the building are built conventionally. Then the roof is temporarily perched on the columns of that first floor, so it can be raised by a special lifting system as additional floors are constructed. The synchronized lifting system — which features customized hydraulic cylinders similar to elevators — is also used to hoist the individual floors into place

Before a new floor is lifted, its steel structural beams and decking are assembled on top of the previously poured concrete floor. The new floor is then hoisted to its final height so columns can be installed underneath it. Once the floor is raised and resting on its permanent columns, the concrete is poured and cured. It takes less than an hour to lift the floor and roof so that the crew can continue working. The process is repeated until the building’s desired number of floors are completed.

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