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Builders rely on technology to improve safety

Construction worker with drone

Construction firms, aided by their insurers, are deploying a wide range of technologies at different stages of adoption to help improve workplace safety and efficiency on their worksites.

Insurers are helping to vet the technologies, partnering with policyholders and technology providers in proofs and beta tests, experts say. But most technology deployment involves some upfront cost that must be considered in evaluating the tech’s worth, they say.

Over the past five to seven years, technology has “definitely” become more prevalent in the construction sector, running the gamut from environmental and wearable sensors to robotics and artificial intelligence, said Eric Zimmerman, Americas head of construction property, builders risk, for American International Group Inc. in Minneapolis.

Technology is moving very quickly and there is more use of technology in the construction sector than three years ago, according to Rose Hoyle, head of strategic operation for construction risk engineering for Axa XL, a unit of Axa SA, in New York.

At any of the major construction conferences, “the number of tech companies in the exhibit hall has increased” substantially, with about 30% to 50% of exhibitors now featuring “some kind of tech,” said James Boileau, risk engineering director of construction with Zurich North America in Lakeville, Minnesota.

“Without a doubt in the last five to 10 years, the amount of technologies that have come to the marketplace is overwhelming,” said David Bowcott, global director of growth, innovation and insight in the global construction and infrastructure group for Aon PLC in Toronto.

Aon set up a technology assessment panel in early 2018 to assist clients in vetting new technologies — looking at about one technology per week and have evaluated more than 50 technologies so far, including 3D printables and robotics, Mr. Bowcott said.

“We’re literally dealing with a wave of technology,” Mr. Bowcott said. “We set up this technology panel to keep up with it.” Axa XL is partnering with OnSiteIQ Inc., a New York-based construction technology firm that collects 360-degree imagery and transforms it into interactive walk-throughs, in a test to evaluate the technology as it helps document the job site and identify risks, Ms. Hoyle said.

The insurer is also in an environmental sensor proof of concept with construction site risk management company Pillar Technologies Inc. in New York and is “looking to partner with more technology companies like that,” she said.

CNA Financial Corp. is involved in a beta test using an exoskeleton prototype built by a vendor to assist workers with lifting and reduce fatigue which could lead to injury, said Gary Clevenger, vice president of risk control in Kansas City, Missouri, for CNA. “Does it really provide a benefit? Assist workers and increase job production? That’s what we’re trying to see,” he said.

“Sensors, telematics, drones — we are using all of these on our job sites to help us manage risk,” said Doug Ware, vice president of risk management in Boston for Suffolk Construction Co. Inc., a national contractor.

Suffolk has teamed with photo and video management firm to help with pretask analyses from a loss control standpoint and to use artificial intelligence to analyze photos from safety and operational observations performed by staff, Mr. Ware said.

Wearables, sensors and drones were some of the more ubiquitously mentioned technologies.

Drone utilization is “almost becoming common” in the construction industry and is used for tasks such as infrared scans that can help detect leaks and other structural building issues, Mr. Boileau said.

Wearables can help promote proper movement and have other safety applications, Ms. Hoyle said.

Sensors on water pipes could help identify potential water damage in advance, Mr. Bowcott said. “The technology is moving from telling you there is a problem to predicting there could be a problem, which becomes very powerful,” he said, adding a lot of claims come from such water damage.

Technology is “enhancing our ability to see things that one risk engineer visiting a site even repeatedly can’t possibly grasp on their own,” Ms. Hoyle said. “It provides better visibility and allows us to get to know our customers better” by providing more information and feedback in a timely manner.

But a major consideration when considering technology in the construction sector is cost, experts say.

“One of the things that definitely came up was cost” in a recent discussion among peers about which application to use for a specific task, Mr. Boileau said. “Free is always better, but you get what you pay for.”

The key is looking at technology as an investment, he said.

“We’re always looking for some sort of (return on investment) on the investment we make or the time we put into developing a technology,” Mr. Ware said.

Scalability is also a “huge concern” in considering a technology, Mr. Ware said. To deploy a tool on job sites across the country, the contractor must have a “repeatable process,” he said.

Modular construction, in which a part or portion of a job is built off-site and then transported to the site to be installed, is being used to manage and mitigate risk alongside technology, but it presents its own challenges, including design limitations, experts say.

However, it may also be used to fill a labor gap by allowing work to be shifted away from the available labor pool, Mr. Zimmerman said.

The continuing labor shortage in the construction sector means there is a “big need for skilled labor not being filled, so there has to be another way of getting the job done,” Mr. Clevenger said. “Companies are turning to technology and automation to get the job done.”

Inexperienced workers such as those hired in the building trades might need training, instruction and monitoring, all of which is further enabled with mobile applications, Mr. Clevenger said.

“Using technology to monitor the job site, conduct training and assist with quality control is all part of that equation,” he said.


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