Study: Design and Technology Can Improve Construction Safety

December 18th, 2017 by Jordan Scott

A new study from Dodge Data & Analytics reveals the engagement with and impact of two critical trends for improving construction safety—technologies used on jobsites, and the practice of Prevention through Design (PtD). The study also shows that general contractors are more likely to use these technologies and practices than trade contractors.

The study is the third in a series that demonstrates the financial and project benefits that contractors reap from their safety investments. It also shows the impact that new technologies being deployed onsite, from building information modeling (BIM) to drones and wearable devices, have on improving safety. Finally, it suggests that active consideration of safety during building design, known formally as PtD, is still an emerging practice, but one well-positioned for wider acceptance in the design and construction industry.

According to the report, only 34 percent of trade contractors are aware of PtD. However, 66 percent believe they are practicing based on the definition provided.

“Most contractors report using permanent safety features, such as those preventing falls, but less than half use prefabrication/modularization, parapet walls at a proper height above the roof surface or grates at skylights specifically as safety enhancements, suggesting significant opportunities for further engagement,” reads the report. “They are generally more open to engaging in these practices than architects are, with no obstacle considered serious by more than half of them.”

The findings from the study on the benefits of safety investments show that investment in safety has a positive impact on project budgets, schedules, quality and on business factors such as a contractor’s standing in the industry or ability to contract new work. And these impacts can be substantial: contractors reporting positive impacts on average see a nearly 5 percent reduction in project schedule and a 4 percent reduction in project costs.

“Consistently, contractors have reported that they receive project and business benefits from safety, even across dramatically different construction markets, such as the ones in 2012 and 2017,” says Steve Jones, senior director, industry insights research at Dodge Data & Analytics.

The study followed up on the 2012 and 2015 findings on leading indicators of a positive safety culture and climate on jobsites. For instance, safety and health training for supervisors and workers, one of the eight indicators, is up from 2015, while recognizing the importance of good communication, another of the indicators, is down.

“This survey helps us track what is happening in the industry relative to each leading indicator. These findings are extremely useful in identifying needs and opportunities for improvement,” says Chris Cain, executive director, CPWR.

The study examined the degree to which contractors are deploying technologies that can help improve jobsite safety, a concept that was also examined in 2012. Different technologies were explored, including BIM, mobile tools and emerging technologies like drones and wearable devices. The findings reveal the ways in which technology is already helping to improve safety and how it is likely to do so in the future.

Approximately one third of trade contractors surveyed reported using BIM, but 44 percent of general contractors reported using it. More than two thirds of contractors who use BIM (69 percent) state that it has a positive impact on project safety, a 27-point increase over those who reported that in 2012.

Smartphone use is nearly ubiquitous on jobsites, and tablet use is widespread and growing. This allows for use of mobile tools like cameras to be used by 85 percent of all contractors. The documentation of site condition and work progress is fundamental to many safety efforts.

Nearly half of contractors also employ safety inspection checklist apps, but use of mobile tools for safety training and to access safety and health websites is less common. However, these tools are used more by general contractors than by trade contractors across the board. The highest percentage of trade contractors (88 percent) report that foremen use mobile tools onsite. There is no difference based on the company’s size.

Almost one quarter of contractors use drones to promote safety onsite for functions such as reality capture that allow for digital analysis of existing conditions. That number drops to just 6 percent when looking at trade contractors alone.

While wearable devices such as badges with coded electronic information and smart helmets are only being used by 13 percent of contractors currently, 82 percent of those who use them report a positive impact on safety.

“Technology is drastically improving jobsite safety, providing tangible results in protecting workers and firms alike,” says Jim Dorris, United Rentals’ vice president of environmental, health and safety. “Evolving data platforms, tools, and service capabilities will deliver innovative new safety solutions.”

Another emerging trend explored in the study is PtD: the effort to help improve construction safety by actively considering safety issues during design, from the schematic stage forward. The study included an architect survey on this issue, which found that while few architects were aware of the formal name for this process before taking the survey, the use of key PtD practices occurred at least to some degree.

However, only about half of architects do similar reviews to optimize construction safety.

The biggest barrier to wider use of PtD among architects is concern about taking on construction liability, reported by 79 percent, followed by lack of client interest at 63 percent. Correspondingly, most architects would be influenced by requests from their clients to take this approach, and more than two thirds would be influenced by insurance incentives.

“The survey findings confirm two things we have been hearing for years,” says Cain. “Owners drive construction safety and health, and architects are reluctant to implement PtD solutions without client pressure. By ensuring the entire team, starting with the owner/client, focuses on preventing jobsite hazards, we will continue to see improvements in worker injuries, illnesses and fatality rates.”

As far as who has the influence to improve safety, 39 percent of trade contractors believe that company owners have the most influential roles. Approximately 17 percent said company leadership, 15 percent chose jobsite workers, 12 percent chose foreman, 9 percent said safety personnel and only 4 percent said the project management team has influence over safety.

“Trade unions and associations also have a role to play in fostering uptake by raising awareness among their members and providing additional, craft-specific resources for implementation,” says Wayne Creasap, senior director of health and safety with the Association of Union Contractors.

Both general and trade contractors provide safety and health training, with about three quarters saying they offer it on 75 percent or more of their projects. However, 80 percent of general contractors report that all employees receive orientation training on a new site on 75 percent or more of their projects, whereas only 67 percent of trade contractors report offerings this training at the same frequency.

A higher percentage of general contractors commonly require supervisor training on safety than do trade contractors. About 70 percent of general contractors require supervisors to have safety and health leadership training and to undergo basic safety and health training themselves (minimum of OSHA 30-hour training in the U.S.) on the majority of their projects, while only around 50 percent of trade contractors have the same requirements.

Online safety training is more widely used by general contractors than trade contractors, and that gap is expected to grow in the next two years.

Editor’s note: “Contractors” refers to the combination of general contractors and trade contractors unless otherwise specified.

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