Wearables—like Fitbits or Apple Watches—have long been popular with consumers looking to log their steps or improve their diet. Now, connected devices are beginning to gain ground in the construction industry, where they can track the number of workers, alert someone if he or she is entering a dangerous area, and even boost a worker’s strength.
Experts say the industry has been slow to adopt this technology, since construction sites can be a difficult environment in which to deploy "internet of things" infrastructure. But in a field where time is critical, companies are finding that internet-connected wearables and tracking devices can improve efficiency and thereby reduce spending.
“Everything to do with construction is centered around being on time and under or on budget,” said Eric Richards, vice president of strategic partnership at Redpoint Positioning, a Boston-based company that sells devices that can be worn by people or placed on tools, assets or machinery to track GPS location in real time. “If we can save 5 percent on the time it takes to do a task for a $5 million construction project, that’s rather significant. The return on investment is quite large.”
The safety features have also attracted the attention of insurance providers and attorneys, said Richards.
“One of the three major insurance carriers in the world is pressing us aggressively to get our product into the hands of their customers,” he said. “Their clients are the large construction sites and they want to push their liability and risk down. It’s just like automotive where they take in some of these sensors and accelerometers, and if you put this in your car and you show you have a safe driving record then they’ll give you a break on your premiums. It’s the exact same concept.”
One out of every five worker fatalities in 2016—according to the most recent data set from OSHA—occurred in the construction industry. For attorneys, wearable devices could be a potential source of evidence if an accident occurs on site, given that such devices can track a worker’s location at the time of the incident.
“On these sites, there are a lot of moving parts and you don’t know where people are all the time,” said Chad Hollingsworth, co-founder and CEO of Triax, a Norwalk, Conn., company that focuses on bringing connectivity to the job site. “We can provide location data—what floor they’re on, and what part of the floor.”
Triax’s flagship product, the Spot-r clip, is a wearable device that provides a real-time count of workers and their locations. It also records falls on the job site and alerts supervisors with the details of the accident. In an emergency, supervisors can even trigger an alarm through the device to alert workers to evacuate.
“There are injuries around falls on site and there are language barriers,” Hollingsworth said. “For a lot of workers, English is their second language, or they don’t speak English, so having a button to call for help and communicate somethings wrong immediately is very important.”
Aside from the safety features, Triax’s products also make managing the construction site more efficient. Traditionally, the bulk of data on a job site—like the type and number of workers—is collected manually, then entered into a project management system.
“It’s inefficient, time-consuming and prone to error but critical because half your costs on these jobs could be labor costs,” Hollingsworth said. “Our system automates that whole process and feeds it into project management software.”
While there are obvious safety and efficiency applications for wearables, they can even be used to boost workers’ productivity, through suits and gear that take on Iron Man capabilities, according to Dr. Rita Yi Man Li, director of the Hong Kong Shue Yan University Real Estate and Economics Research Lab.
“Wearable exoskeletons enhance users’ strength,” said Li, who focuses her research on information technology and construction safety. “Similar to Iron Man, the tool is lightweight and enhances endurance. It relieves workers when they lift heavy loads and transfers the loads to the ground via exoskeleton when the workers kneel or stand.”
These wearables can ease back stress when workers lift and carry heavy items such as bags of concrete.
In Hong Kong, some workers are equipped with sensor safety helmets, Li said. If a worker has been working in a crane tower for an extended period, the helmet may alert them if they are close to falling asleep, she explains. The helmets may also warn workers when they are entering a high hazard zone.
While there are many benefits of internet of things technology on the job site, there are natural concerns over privacy, given the fact that devices are designed to track workers all day long. Redpoint Positioning’s Richards says allaying those fears has everything to do with transparency.
“When we implement a project, you must have buy-in by everyone, including the workers,” Richards said. “We spend a lot of time explaining how the technology works. We’re not tracking you in the bathroom, we’re not selling your data.”
Some workers may also find that the safety benefits outweigh their privacy concerns, said Li.
“In cases of working in high hazard areas, [internet of things] may work with GPS or GIS to offer important signals to workers who consider safety more important than privacy invasion,” she said.