Wearable Technology by Industry: Construction

According to APX Labs, there are approximately 40 million deskless workers in the U.S. alone. Construction workers certainly count among this group, which stands to greatly benefit from wearable technology; but although construction is considered one of the major emerging markets for wearable tech, this sector has only just begun to dabble in the possibilities of wearables to increase safety and efficiency. Considering that construction is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, the case for wearables in the industry should be an easy one to make, right?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that construction jobsite accidents account for nearly 20% of all U.S. work-related fatalities & injuries. OSHA has categorized the causes of these accidents into “The Fatal Four”—falls, struck by object, electrocution, and caught-in/between (none of which sound pretty). Eliminating the fatal four would save close to 500 lives in America each year, and save the construction industry billions of dollars in workers’ comp and related costs. Wearable technology may be able to greatly reduce the risks faced by construction workers everyday on the job.

In an industry where mobility and precision are everything, what can wearable tech achieve? First, a little on the nature of construction: We already mentioned that construction is a highly dangerous occupation. In addition, much of construction work is done on-site, away from desktop computers, and jobsite locations as well as individual assignments change frequently. There’s also BIM or building information modeling, invented to help plan, design, construct, and manage building and infrastructure; but BIM software involves a complex learning curve, requiring the need for experts. For several years now, the construction industry has been trending toward using mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) to access and share project data from remote work sites. Wearable devices like smart glasses, smartwatches, and smart clothing are the next logical step in this mobile revolution of sorts.

When it comes to construction, wearable tech has the potential to improve field communication, efficiency, and safety. Wearables can grant construction workers the ability to immediately and effectively capture, share and collaborate on jobsite information—all in real time and without having to use their hands. (Are you noticing a trend here?) Wearables can also bridge time and distance constraints imposed by the remote nature of most construction projects; enable more informed, real-time decision making; and perform the duty of assessing jobsite safety accurately and continuously. They can even facilitate machine operations to precisely measure and cut materials, or direct equipment along specified GPS coordinates.

A huge benefit to employing wearable technology like smart glasses in construction is the ability to augment reality to access work plans before one’s eyes, in real time, and without having to put down one’s tools; and to view interactive models of building projects without having to be an expert at BIM or VDC (virtual design and construction). In this way, wearables stand to provide an unprecedented perspective of ongoing construction projects. In addition, these devices can provide instruction, insight, and alerts to workers as they operate power tools, connect fasteners, and perform a variety of other tasks requiring concentration and the use of both hands. Voice command options and mobile data collection (and sharing) provided by wearable devices such as smartwatches also free up hands, leading to improved efficiency, reduced error rates, and better safety. Imagine a construction worker and his foreman: the former could use wearable tech to direct a machine to operate or troubleshoot a mechanical problem, while the latter instantly retrieves blueprints, coordinates workers’ assignments, and fulfills supply orders—all by simply speaking commands and without ever lifting a hand.

Wearable tech will transform how those in the construction industry manage, view and collaborate on project information; and it will also revolutionize their approach to safety. While the construction industry has been growing and the number of construction-related jobs is on the rise, construction safety apparel has remained largely unchanged for over 50 years. It’s high time to upgrade, and wearable technology will help meet inevitably higher safety standards.

I already mentioned that wearables can assess jobsite safety—for example, a pulse oximeter fitted to a worker’s hardhat can detect the onset of carbon monoxide poisoning. Wearable tech can monitor construction workers’ wellbeing as well as their proximity to danger zones, and augment safety precautions in known hazardous areas or situations. How? By collecting data on workforce movements and behavior as well as the jobsite itself via sensors, monitors and other technologies embedded in new construction safety wear, and by sending alerts to those at risk; such information as hoist use and proximity to heavy machinery can be measured and potentially analyzed to predict injuries, health risks, site-specific dangers, and climate impact.

Real-time data analytics would enable an overseer to immediately alert a worker if he were about to enter a potential hazard zone or somehow risk his safety; and that’s not all: if a machine were in the process of malfunctioning, the technical issue could be addressed quicker. The same goes for when a worksite is running out of a particular resource or an object falls, presenting a risk to workers’ safety; in all cases, automatic alerts could be sent out. Spotting trends with data derived from wearables would help identify and solve internal issues and make processes both more efficient and safer, leading to reductions in unexpected costs and construction delays. But I digress, for while real-time monitoring – of workers’ vitals, jobsite environment, and equipment – is a current reality of wearable tech in construction; the analytics part – converting the streaming data into actionable knowledge – is not quite there yet.

So there are construction safety benefits to wearable technology, including reminders to wear the proper PPE (personal protective equipment); and alerts when a jobsite becomes unsafe, the aim being to reduce accidents from slips to trips to falls. And wearable tech can allow construction workers to perform their jobs with greater accuracy, from measuring rooms to cutting materials, in addition to serving as a great collaboration tool. Wearable devices offer a quick means of sharing safety and other information among members of a construction crew, and even cut down on the amount of paperwork one has to lug around a jobsite. Eventually, productivity and safety statistics will be captured and analyzed to spot trends or areas where improvements could be made; but for now, let’s explore some general use examples of WT in construction.

A construction manager, for one, could use Google Glass to document areas of damage and repair during a walk-through of a building, and communicate his findings to other stakeholders in just a few moments—by snapping a photo, dictating a brief message, and sending it to a smartphone. He could also use Glass’ visual projection to ensure the building is going according to plan as laid out in architectural drawings. Construction workers could similarly view blueprints or 3-D models to better understand the expectations for a finished building by using a more immersive augmented reality display like the Epson Moverio smart glasses; they could also use smart glasses to gain vision inside piping and walls. With smart glasses, sheet metal workers need not stop their work on ductwork over their heads to study instructions on a clipboard or tablet; and a contractor need not spend hours generating estimates with measuring tapes and notepads—instead, he could use calculators, estimating and takeoff tools, and real-time scanning-as-you-look technology built in to the wearable device to perform all his measuring. Construction supervisors could take a headcount with the wink of an eye; instantly view virtual markers for the locations of employees, machinery, and building materials; and receive notifications pertaining to delays in deliveries and other information pertinent to the timely completion of a project.

As for safety, smart glasses, smartwatches and even exoskeletons could be employed to strengthen construction safety efforts. Smart safety glasses could potentially protect workers’ eyes while also scanning for dangerous situations (by using live images from workers’ viewpoints, GPS with BIM models, etc.). Connecting the devices to equipment opens up the possibility of preventing heavy machinery from being operated by an unprotected worker, i.e. by someone not wearing smart safety glasses or other protective gear.

Not only can smartwatches and other wrist-worn devices provide real-time monitoring of construction workers’ vitals but they can also provide safety alarms and location-based alerts. For instance, a smartwatch could warn a worker to put on his protective smart clothing when nearing or operating certain machinery. Exoskeletons – a rather extreme example of smart clothing that offers augmented strength to the wearer – could diminish risk of injury from lifting and other tasks involving human exertion, and theoretically shield workers from exposure to the elements. While this tech is still a bit futuristic, smart construction safety gear is already offering safety and performance features on jobsites. For example, the traditional construction hard hat and vest are being equipped with various sensors, monitors and ID readers as well as GPS tracking and innate charging capabilities; because, let’s face it, wearing construction orange just isn’t enough to keep workers safe anymore.

Smart hard hats and vests can do such things as measure distances; display architectural drawings; check work being done against plans; monitor workers’ vitals, including core body temp, blood gas saturation levels, repetitive motion, and fatigue (all of which can lead to injuries), as well as transmit this data to medical workers; track workers’ location in real time; detect and report an impact or fall; and determine when a jobsite becomes unsafe. The gear can be solar powered or else powered by the motion of the wearer. NYC-based Human Condition has been working on the next generation of safety clothing for the construction industry that boasts many of the above listed capabilities. The long-term vision is of a network of biometric and environmental sensors along w/ GPS, RFID, BLE, etc. built into all kinds of personal protective gear to provide maximum safety and real-time data to construction workers.

It should be noted that wearable devices do not have to be all that “smart” to prove incredibly useful on a jobsite. A seemingly simplistic solution combining technology and clothing accessories such as Fhoss Technology’s innovative powered light safety wear presents clear safety benefits to construction workers. But while Fhoss’ wearable tech as well as augmented reality tools like Google Glass and smartwatches such as the Apple Watch are discussed much in theory in relation to construction, WT faces several key challenges in the sector; and the industry as a whole remains in the “evangelizing stage” when it comes to adopting this new wave of mobile technology. In other words, those in construction still need some convincing.

The major challenges to WT going mainstream in construction are proving ROI and finding forward-thinking industry professionals to jumpstart a wave of conversion. Construction is an industry plagued by old rules; it’s both very traditional and shaped largely by personal relationships. Most in the field don’t feel they desperately need wearable tech to build something, nor are they too keen to abandon existing partners in favor of new technology solution providers, or to switch over to technology that their usual partners are not using. It has been a slow changeover as it is to utilizing tablets and drones, which is probably the most advanced tech in the space at the moment. Furthermore, construction is one of the only industries where efficiency has statistically declined with the introduction of new technology.

Yet the applications are there. So how does a solution provider show a construction customer the benefit of, say, smart glasses, and get him to adopt the tech? Above all, he must prove that the wearable device saves both time and money and/or that it is a better replacement for existing technology solutions. In other words, the new technology has got to be a lot better than the old technology, and evidently so. Take Google Glass, for instance: in actuality, Glass might not be a viable solution for construction, if only because the device is more difficult to use and read than a mobile phone or tablet (aka the existing tech). On top of that, Android is not as easy to use as iOS, mainly because it is easier to stick with what you know (most having become familiar with iOS first); and some might say that construction is all about sticking with what you know. Smartwatches, on the other hand, may have greater potential at a jobsite as a replacement for a smartphone in one’s pocket and as a location tool. Not only can the Apple Watch capture & share visuals, but it arguably boasts greater glanceability and ease of communication than Glass, at least in a construction scenario.

Before I wrap up this rather long industry assessment, I’d like to touch on another major issue for WT in construction, and that is IT. Construction firms in general are rather behind in the world of IT, with many smaller firms lacking an IT department altogether; but as wearable tech continues to infiltrate the industry, becoming more integrated into not just the operations of construction companies but also those of their clients, we can expect to see an overhaul in construction IT methods.