Technology is increasingly being used to improve safety and efficiency on construction sites, but efforts to introduce connected equipment and other resources often face obstacles.
A lack of data proving the technology’s benefits, costs, privacy concerns and difficulty changing entrenched practices have limited the devices’ use, experts say.
But given the risk of serious injury and death among construction workers, the number of technology-based safety applications is increasing, they say.
“The technology has taken shape,” but such applications are “in their infancy,” said Tom Grandmaison, Boston-based executive vice president and head of engineering at Willis Towers Watson PLC.
One of the biggest challenges in adopting newer technology is explaining the benefits to construction companies, who are often budget-conscious and reluctant to change established practices. Additionally, a lack of data demonstrating the benefits of the new products may hinder efforts to gain management and insurance company support.
“We don’t have dozens and dozens of years of credible before-and-after use-of-technology data,” Mr. Grandmaison.
Construction technology is designed to improve everything from operational efficiency to risk management for subcontractors. Among the most famous types of technology-based equipment are wearables (see related story). Smartphone applications are another popular technology used to improve security.
“Today, there are a plethora of useful apps on the market and available to users,” said Dwayne Hartman, manager of construction loss control for Kansas City, Missouri-based brokerage Lockton Cos. LLC.
Mr. Hartman said some companies use these apps, and corresponding handheld devices, to do things like monitor air temperature to help prevent heat-related illnesses or to warn workers about getting too close to a risk area in a workplace.
But there are privacy concerns with some devices that collect data related to workers.
Companies need to proactively train staff on how to use the devices and be transparent with workers to help alleviate privacy concerns, Hartman said.
Wearables are used by companies in workers’ comp cases to demonstrate whether an employee followed proper guidelines and protocols at the time of a workplace injury, said Kevin O’Sadnick, senior risk control manager at St. Louis-based insurance provider Safety National Corp. .
It’s important for companies to promote the technology in such a way that it benefits workers, he said.
“It becomes very important when it comes to the rollout or how these things are described or presented to employees,” O’Sadnick said.
For example, companies would benefit from promoting camera technology as a coaching and training tool rather than “troubleshooting devices,” he said.
Despite the difficulties in introducing the products, they will likely improve safety over time, Hartman said.
“We support all of this technology,” Hartman said. “We believe that over time it will become more beneficial than it even is today.”
Adding to the difficulty of adoption, some technologies have raised concerns among labor unions regarding worker privacy.
Collective bargaining agreements can get in the way of technology use, said Rob McDonough, U.S. construction practice leader for New York-based broker Marsh LLC.
Richard Kennedy, leader of U.S. workforce strategy for Marsh Specialty in Morristown, New Jersey, said companies introducing new technology must promote the labor benefits of the devices.
“Getting workers to understand the value of such devices to them … and that it’s not Big Brother watching over them” is important, Kennedy said. “We’re careful to hear their concerns and to listen to their concerns and to alleviate their concerns.”
Other benefits of introducing new safety technologies include associated improvements in well-being and work habits, said Greg Perruzzi, New Jersey-based senior vice president and vertical leader for Gallagher Bassett Services Inc.
Perruzzi, who worked in the construction industry for two decades as a risk manager for some of the largest developers in the U.S., said educating operational staff about the benefits of technology is an important step toward adoption.
In terms of return on investment, Mr. McDonough that some companies using the technology can get favorable insurance rates, although he also noted that in many cases employers are yet to see the “actual tangible return on invested capital.”
It is difficult to estimate when the technology could lead to a significant reduction in claims, says Safety National’s O’Sadnick.
“If you can show some value, maybe you can get enough leg room to roll out a pilot program … just to test drive it,” he said.
The cost of adopting a technology is not only related to purchasing or licensing the product. Education, updating business documentation and legal compliance work are other factors to consider.
And such costs for both adopting the technology and managing the change can make it difficult to justify.
“Employers need to be able to see the value in the devices,” Hartman said. “It’s safe to say it’s more costly for smaller contractors.”