We have the technology … why not wear it?

As the wearable technology market continues to grow, we round up a few of the newest and most innovative articles of attire intended to boost safety and productivity in construction.

Lending a bionic hand

Ekso Bionics’ Zero-Gravity Arm aims to make operating heavy hand-held machinery easier and safer. The company gained its rep producing exoskeletons—wearable robotic aids for soldiers and the partially paralyzed—and is now branching out into bionics for the construction trades.

Ekso’s new Zero G arm renders power tools (up to 36 pounds) virtually weightless. Though exoskeleton technology takes some getting used to, noted a Wired reviewer, the effect is to enhance the user’s strength, mobility, and endurance. The system works on the same principle as the Steadicams used in Hollywood, swiveling about on springs and counterweights. The bionic arm also absorbs the powerful feedback produced by power tools, reducing strain on the worker.

When put to the test (see video below), a worker using the zeroG arm completed a jobsite task not only faster, but with more accuracy and much less fatigue. Meanwhile, a worker using the traditional method tired sooner, and took far longer to complete the task:

(For a less polished but more comprehensive video exploration of the Zero G Arm, check out Marko Kaar’s review.)

Tactical textiles

In Britain, more than 10,000 insurance claims have been made for vibration white finger and carpal tunnel syndrome over the past decade, according to the British Health and Safety Executive. That’s a cost of £20 million to £250 million (or roughly $25 million to $322 million). And these conditions result from continuous operation of vibrating hand-held machinery.

Seeking to combat these permanent industrial diseases, a new wearable technology being developed at Nottingham Trent University in the UK warns construction workers when a hand injury is imminent. The e-gloves, not much bulkier than average heavy-duty work gloves, are embedded with tiny sensors that warn workers when they’re exposed to dangerous levels of vibration.

Only 2 millimeters long, the sensors are imbedded into a yarn textile and knitted into the gloves. The seemingly simple technology performs an impressive safety duty. When triggered by dangerous levels of vibration, these tiny sensors warn wearers to stop work.

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A prototype of the e-glove. (Photo courtesy of Nottingham Trent University)

Vested interest

Redpoint Positioning has developed an innovative safety vest that protects workers and has the potential to improve incident reporting, drive efficiency, and cut costs.

Embedded with Redpoint’s indoor GPS tracking system, this high-tech personal protective equipment (PPE) gives full visibility to jobsite operations. When a worker enters a designated “danger zone” on the jobsite, it triggers the vest’s flashing red lights and audio feedback, while managers receive customized digital data on the worker’s location. The data is tracked and logged to help manage on-site safety practices.

Redpoint calls the technology a “wireless safety net,” lending an integrated approach to PPE. Of course, some workers might chafe at the thought of being tracked, and it is important not to abuse the technology, said Gary Cunningham, recently retired as Suffolk’s national safety director. “It has to be a partnership,” Cunningham said, with the shared goal of reducing injuries.

But “if you’re afraid of a tracking device,” said Suffolk Senior Safety Manager Joe Villela, “throw away your cell phone!” At 1700 Webster in Oakland, Villela gave workers radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to wear. “The whole point is safety,” he said. “In case of a catastrophic event, such as an earthquake—which on the West Coast we know is not a matter of if but when—we can make sure everyone is out of the building.”

The RFID tags, from Trimble, were effective, though they weren’t as flashy (literally) as the Redpoint vests:

A step forward for construction footwear

SolePower founder Hahna Alexander was recognized by Toyota’s “Mothers of Invention” female entrepreneurs’ series. Her innovation: generating electricity through footsteps. Alexander found a way to harvest kinetic energy from the human motion of a heel hitting the ground. The energy then transfers into a mechanical system, which, in turn, uses it to spin a micro-generator. In simple terms, human energy fuels kinetic chargers, providing a better, lighter power source.

This power source, when placed inside the back of a work boot, wirelessly gathers data and measures worker safety, efficiency, and productivity. The SmartBoot technology promises to keep workers safe, fit, and productive, and could be valuable on a worksite in lowering accident rates, tracking hours and monitoring workers’ locations in the event of an emergency. In turn, these incredible Smartboots could save money, lives and time, and improve incident reporting accuracy on the jobsite.

This post was written by Suffolk’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis. Content Writer Patrick Kennedy contributed additional reporting. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com and Patrick can be reached at pkennedy@suffolk.com, or you can connect with him on LinkedIn here or Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

Three ways virtual reality could improve safety trainings

In honor of OSHA’s 2016 Safety Week, part two of our series on virtual reality in the construction industry focuses on, what else, safety. Click here to check out the first post in our series.

Professional Man Wearing Virtual Reality Headset

With all of the new virtual reality headsets hitting the marketplace these days, it’s easy to write off VR as child’s play. But the truth is that the magic of gaming has the potential to transform a number of industries, including construction. And safety is one of the most applicable use cases for anyone considering investing in this burgeoning technology. Imagine if a construction worker could be transported from the training room to the jobsite simply by putting on a headset. They could actually see a hoist tipping or feel themselves losing balance while walking across raised beams.

Being immersed in these dangerous scenes would no doubt plant a seed of caution in the worker’s mind before they even step on site. VR could encourage them to make thoughtful decisions virtually before they make a mistake in reality.

Due to weather conditions and other variables, a VR simulation could never depict a construction site 100 percent accurately. But virtual simulators have proven to be an effective training ground for police, Marines and pilots. A study conducted by the Navy found that student pilots using Microsoft’s Flight Simulator were 54 percent more likely to score above-average in real life flight tests.

Similarly, the latest virtual reality technologies could take construction industry safety trainings to the next level. While the critical but basic tenants of trainings would not change, such as tutorials, safety orientations, qualifications, etc., VR could raise the bar on the kinds of training companies could provide their workers to keep them and others safe. Here are some practical examples of how VR could augment traditional safety trainings:

  1. Workers inside the VR jobsite could be presented with a scenario in which they have to point out all the possible hidden dangers in front of them, such as live wires, misplaced ladders or a worker cutting a small piece of steel with his protective goggles on top of his hardhat and not over his eyes.
  2. If a real accident occurs on the job, it could be recreated virtually to teach workers how to avoid the same mistake twice. Only an animated avatar would suffer the consequences of unsafe acts on the jobsite. One example could be a worker setting up a swing stage. One side of the swing stage slips down and strikes his left shoulder causing a minor abrasion. Experiencing this in VR would teach workers how to avoid making this same mistake on a real project site.
  3. VR could also become a much more effective platform for teaching workers how to safely perform their daily duties in a virtual environment. This could include navigating confined spaces, safely setting up ladders, welding or preventing fires from breaking out on the job.
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Can you spot the safety infractions in this virtual construction scene? (Image courtesy of Inge Knudsen)

But the training room is not the only place VR can be valuable. VR could also be used to conduct safety inspections that are closely tied to scheduling. For example, the safety precautions for a specific task, such as erecting concrete precast planks, could be simulated weeks in advance before it is performed on the job so that everything is in place once construction begins.

While this is a tantalizing use case that could become a mainstay in the future, training is still the most practical and immediate use for VR when it comes to construction safety. Most people learn by doing, so oftentimes the most effective trainings drive home safety through real onsite scenarios and case studies. Using virtual reality to create a dynamic and lasting visual cue for construction workers would make all the difference in classroom safety trainings. Being immersed in dangerous situations virtually would surely cause workers to pause before engaging in an unsafe activity on a project site. And sometimes that short pause can be the difference between getting hurt — or worse — and staying safe.

This post was written by Suffolk Northeast’s Project Administrator Lindsay Davis. If you have questions, she can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com. Suffolk National Safety Director Gary Cunningham and Suffolk Content Writer Justin Rice contributed to this post.

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

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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Remote-control vehicles keep construction workers out of harm’s way

indexRemember the remote-control truck you had as a kid? You could barge into the sand box, toggle your way back out, crash unexpectedly and reverse just as quickly, all while staying out of harm’s way. Today, construction workers have the option to use remote-control equipment from outside the cab, so they can do dangerous work more safely and efficiently.

The latest advancement in these wireless technologies is a collaboration between Caterpillar and TORC Robotics known as RemoteTask. Made available for purchase in North America this month, the remote-control system operates several Cat machines from up to 1,000 feet away.

RemoteTask provides a health benefit by giving workers the opportunity to stand up and walk around, rather than sitting in a vehicle’s cab for hours on end. But the biggest benefit is that it can prevent injuries by removing the operator from the machine while keeping control in their hands.

It’s important to note that remote-control vehicles could give operators a false sense of safety. But there are several types of accidents that would be less damaging to the operator if the driver is not in the cab. The most common hazard is toppling over while working around trenches or on a steep slope. There’s also the danger of a load-bearing wall falling on a vehicle working in a trench or inside a room. Falling debris, materials or infrastructure such as concrete slabs or steel beams could also crush the cab, killing or badly injuring the driver.

Approximately 100 employees are fatally injured and approximately 95,000 employees are injured every year while operating powered industrial trucks according to OSHA. 

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“Cocoon” wraps construction sites in safety

With the Prudential Center and John Hancock building on the horizon, 90 to 100 construction workers briskly built the superstructure for the 21st floor of the luxury tower that is filling the former crater at Boston’s famed Filene’s site. The crew installed reinforcing steel, formwork and raised heavy materials as an air-horn’s sporadic blast warned workers to look out for a giant crane hoisting loads overhead.

Despite being a hair-raising 280 feet above ground, the team worked as confidently and efficiently as if they were on the ground. Their sense of safety is provided by a series of steel mesh screens wrapping the Millennium Tower Boston like a Christmas present. The giant yellow apparatus bordering their workspace is the ultimate safety tool for high-rise construction projects.

For more on safety, click here.

Nicknamed the “cocoon” and manufactured by Peri-USA, the Lightweight Protection System, or LPS, is slotted into a rail system that allows the panels to rise with the building — protecting construction crews as well as their materials and tools from falling overboard. Its mesh design allows natural light to illuminate work areas while protecting workers from the elements. Continue Reading ›

Leading safety indicators

As Massport’s safety manager in the mid 2000s, Gary Cunningham had a rough introduction to the burgeoning world of analytics.

Cunningham, who started working as Suffolk Construction’s National Safety Director almost two years ago, couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a “leading indicator” as opposed to a “lagging indicator.” The terminology first came up when a Massport business analyst named Scott Milam asked him how Massport’s new executive director should judge Cunningham’s performance.

“I said to him ‘Injury experience of course,’” Cunningham recalled recently. “He said ‘No that’s a lagging indicator. An injury has already taken place. He wants leading indicators.’ This is going to sound stupid today, but honest to God I met with him like six times and he must have thought I was the stupidest person he ever met. He would say ‘No, no I’m looking for leading indicators, what are the things before an injury takes place that tell you if somebody is working safely.’”

“I couldn’t grasp it. I could not get it.”

Eventually Cunningham had an epiphany.

“I finally got it,” he said. “I thought ‘Oh my gosh he’s talking about what are the things that I can see up front that tell me if a contractor is safe?’ I swear it was like opening the fridge and the light went on.”

Ever since Cunningham has been a self-described numbers zealot. And when he arrived at Suffolk in January 2013 he implemented the one-of-a-kind Safe Contractor Observing Tracking system known as SCOT. Cunningham said he originally wanted to call it a SPOT check before his colleague Mike Lindblom convinced him it should be SCOT since it’s about contractors.

“It’s purely coincidence,” Cunningham said of the SCOT system sharing Scott Milam’s name. “The circle is unbroken.”

Nevertheless, SCOT tracks leading indicators of safety such as wearing hard hats, safety glasses and high visibility vests that allow Cunningham to determine not only how safe a subcontractor is, but also how well they perform overall. Cunningham said there’s a direct correlation to safety and performance.

“If you can’t do those very basic things on safety, then you are not going to do well on the more challenging esoteric things,” he said. “There are a handful of things that, in general, can tell you if it’s a good sub or not. And there’s a loose correlation between SCOT scores and injuries experience. We find the subs that do better on their SCOT scores have fewer injuries and the subs that do poorly on the SCOT score have a lot of injuries.”

“Again, it’s a little wrinkle that not everybody does.”

The implementation of the SCOT system has put Suffolk’s overall safety score trending in a positive direction.

“Last year we had a really great year,” Cunningham said. “We reduced injuries year over year by 40 percent, which is really significant.”