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Construction contractors embrace new technologies as fatalities rise

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Fatalities in the construction sector are on the rise as the industry’s workforce ages and youngsters show no interest in replacing them — a challenge that safety experts are looking to mitigate in part through the use of new technologies.

The total number of construction fatalities has been climbing for several years, with 738 deaths reported in 2011 and 991 deaths reported in 2016, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The leading causes of deaths in the construction industry were falls, electrocutions, struck by object, caught in or between equipment, according to the bureau.

Construction employment increased by 13,000 jobs in June and by 282,000 jobs over the past year, reaching a 10-year high, according to a report by the Arlington, Virginia-based Associated General Contractors of America. Construction employment totaled 7.2 million in June, the highest level since May 2008 and up 4.1% over the past 12 months, the association said.

“The construction industry is back on an upturn, but it’s still pretty shocking when you think about it in today’s age probably over 900 people will lose their lives working on a job,” said Mike Fredebeil, Atlanta-based senior vice president, leader for North America construction safety and risk control for Willis Towers Watson P.L.C.

Mr. Fredebeil added that “ergonomics on construction projects become more and more important.”

“The workforce is aging, and you have to do things to accommodate the risks that you have as you get older,” he said.

Geffrey Price, U.S. construction industry practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting in Chicago, said he believes the increase in fatalities is due to an increase in construction projects around the country. An increased workforce means increased risk, which in turn leads to higher incident frequency, he said.

“The big challenge that we’re facing is an aging workforce,” Mr. Price said. “And of course, as we age, our bodies don’t perform as well as when we’re in our Twenties. Young people these days coming out of college aren’t looking to go into the construction industry. They’re technologically savvy. They want jobs that are more computer related so it’s difficult to fill the construction ranks.”

Construction companies are implementing new ways to try to mitigate the injury risk, including through the use of technology, experts say.

Many clients are using different safety applications on mobile devices to communicate with workers and streamline the pretest hazard assessment, said Phil Casto, Chicago-based senior vice president for risk services at Hub International Ltd.

“Before it was a piece of paper you had to fill out, now it’s a little bit more intuitive,” he said. “It’s a series of questions that a foreman goes through on his app, after he completes the questionnaire that turns into his toolbox talk for the day.”

A toolbox talk is a safety meeting — often conducted weekly — that focuses on safety issues related to a specific job. Hundreds of topics are available in various apps, or new topics can be created based on a particular job, Mr. Casto said.

“We’re better able to disseminate information,” he said. “A lot of times paperwork in construction is a difficult thing to keep track of. One more piece of paper is sometimes a hurdle, and technology has done a good job of bridging that gap.”

Overall, 88% of contractors use smartphones on their work sites, with applications and software being the most commonly used safety tool, according to a study by CPWR-The Center for Construction Research and Training in Silver Spring, Maryland, and New York-based Dodge Data & Analytics released in 2017. For example, 42% of contractors used safety inspection checklist apps or software, a jump of 12 percentage points from a 2012 study, according to CPWR and Dodge.

Many companies are looking to protect workers in the design phase of a building through Building Information Modeling or BIM, a 3D model-based process that allows architects and engineers to plan and manage buildings and infrastructure, Mr. Fredebeil said.

The process “is absolutely helping reduce the risk contractors have constructing the building,” he said.

Contractors are reporting positive benefits of BIM technology, with 69% of contractors using BIM in 2017 reporting that it has a positive impact on safety compared with 42% in 2012, likely due to greater experience with BIM and the development of better tools such as photogrammetry that can be employed within the model to impact safety, according to the CPWR and Dodge study. Benefits of using BIM include reduced reportable injury rates and improved project quality, according to the report.

Planning and physical conditioning can also help reduce construction accidents, Mr. Casto said.

“Make sure everybody in the workforce is aware of the risks associated with what their task is at hand,” he said. “The smarter you are, the more you know which tools to use. And the more you know what the risks associated with it are, the more likely you’re going to have a safe outcome.”

In addition, Mr. Price said stretch and flex routines that warm up construction workers before they start their day can help reduce injuries.

“It’s proven to be very helpful,” he said. “It’s a 15- to 20-minute process designed to warm up the muscles, but it also brings you into a mindset of ‘I need to be fit for duty in my mind and my body.’ So, rather than just going to work, putting the lunch pail down and jumping into it, let’s take a moment, folks, and think about what we’re doing.”