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Out of Harm’s Way: Robots are Rewriting the Rules of Construction Safety

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There’s no getting around it: construction is a risky business. When you’re working on complex projects involving half-built structures, heavy machinery, ever-changing weather conditions, and the need to coordinate the activities of large work crews, an element of risk is impossible to prevent.

The trouble is, while many occupations are getting far less risky over time, construction work is actually getting more dangerous. Construction worker deaths rose 41% between 2011 and 2019, and have continued to climb since then.

Clearly, a business-as-usual approach isn’t working. To ensure the safety of our teams, we need a new approach to managing and mitigating the hazards associated with construction sites — and that means leaning into new technologies, including automation and robotics, to make our worksites the safest they can possibly be.

Rise of the Machines

Robots and automated tools are already transforming construction sites. Automated masonry tools can dramatically increase the speed of construction — one prototype robot can lay 1,000 bricks per hour, for instance, while reducing the need for human workers to haul heavy pallets of brick or mortar around worksites. Autonomous vehicles and “driverless dozers” are also starting to break through, promising to allow heavy equipment to complete risky tasks while keeping humans safely out of harm’s way.

Other technologies are already widely utilized: drones, for instance, are used on at least 37% of construction sites, and they can significantly reduce the need for human workers to climb to high areas for inspections. With falls from dangerous heights accounting for more than a third of fatal construction accidents, that’s a big deal. There’s also the potential for drone-mounted sensors to help detect heat signatures to prevent fires as well as dangerous equipment malfunctions, and in commercial spaces, robots are being used to detect slip-and-fall hazards. We need to make similar automated preventative measures ubiquitous on construction sites. 

The benefits of such tools are obvious. Automating high-risk activities is a huge net win for construction workers, who will increasingly be able to work remotely on dangerous tasks. Many injuries — sometimes fatal — can be traced back to human error, and the human element is one factor an automated system, working with precision and consistency, can completely eliminate. As long as a robotic system is configured correctly, it won’t make mistakes — and if something does go wrong, it will be replaceable equipment, not human workers.

Don’t Take Safety for Granted

But it’s not all good news. Many construction workers say they find it distracting to work alongside drones, and there’s evidence that even when drones are operating at a considerable distance from humans they often lead workers to look away from their tasks. To use drones safely, we’ll need to manage their use and ensure they’re deployed in ways that coordinate with human workers and enable teams to operate safely and confidently across a range of worksite settings.

New technologies such as robot exoskeletons are also a mixed blessing: they can significantly reduce the wear-and-tear on human muscle and bone, making many workplace injuries less prevalent, but any technology that helps a single human lift 1,000 pounds brings potential dangers, too. These new capabilities bring new risks, and require proper training and new safety protocols to ensure their safe use.

It’s important to remember that worksite automation is also about increasing productivity. If a new tool or technology lets a worker complete a task single-handed, that’s great – but sometimes having fewer people working on a given task can make it easier for mistakes to go unnoticed. We’ll need proper planning and checklists, delivered and tracked seamlessly using digital tablets and other systems, to ensure that automation doesn’t increase the risk of potentially dangerous oversights. 

A Safer Future for Construction Teams

The reality, then, is that robots will bring both potential benefits and new risks to construction worksites. To capture those benefits and manage those risks, we’ll need to be proactive about integrating new technologies into our worksites and our workflows in smart and responsible ways.

That will mean ensuring that we don’t simply patch together new technologies and expect them to work seamlessly and safely without any central oversight. In an era that will increasingly be defined by new construction technologies, we need to make sure that we have full visibility into the processes, equipment, and people across our worksites. 

It might help to take a look at manufacturing, where industrial robots and automated systems are now par for the course. To keep track of factories, plant managers use “virtual twins” that digitally track every aspect of the equipment they’re using — from the RPM of a given motor, to the locations of specific workers or automated vehicles, to the temperature on the factory floor. That allows factories to operate more efficiently, but it also provides a layer of centralized oversight and communication that helps keep everyone safe.

If we are to be as successful with new technology as they are in the manufacturing sector, we’ll need proper training and education for construction teams, who will increasingly have to be knowledge workers as well as manual laborers. Using robotic tools and working alongside automated equipment, work crews will need to be able to follow safety guidelines and processes for using sophisticated tools in real time. Making that process easy and seamless for human workers will be vital to ensuring that teams work safely and efficiently, while also overcoming any potential resistance they may have to using automated tools.

As we begin to introduce new automated and robotic technologies, we need to remember that construction worksites are complex places where humans and machines come together to get the job done. Using digital tools for education, training, worksite management, risk prediction and mitigation, asset tracking, communication, and related purposes will be essential as we strive to make construction sites the safest they can possibly be for their workers.

Sander Van de Rijdt is the co-founder and co-CEO of PlanRadar, a digital platform for documentation, task management and communication in construction and real estate projects, serving more than 120,000 users across 75+ countries.

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