Question of the Month: How will smart technology be integrated into current construction tools? - by Peter Simon

December 17, 2019 - Design / Build

Smart Technology & The Future of Ladder Safety: Technological, Construction & Safety

The construction industry has had a reputation for being resistant to change and slow to integrate new technologies that are often more quickly adopted by other industries, but that is rapidly changing. The construction industry is gradually using tools such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), drones, equipment sensors, smart phone applications and 3D printing to more efficiently and safely perform construction work.

One of the strongest drivers behind the use of new and advanced technology is improving worker safety and health. Many of these technological advancements are so commonplace today it can be hard to imagine or remember the workplace without them (hard hats, equipment back-up alarms, fall protection harnesses, safety shoes, etc.). Even with the numerous advancements in workplace safety there are still (2017) more than 14 workplace deaths everyday according to OSHA; down from the 1970 average of 38 worker deaths per day.

Falls, Ladders & Smart Technology

OSHA statistics indicate that almost 40% of construction fatalities are a result of falls. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 81% of construction worker fall injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments involve a ladder and a significant proportion of ladder injuries occur at a height of 6’ or less.

The estimated annual cost of ladder injuries in the U.S. is approximately $24 billion, including work loss, medical, legal, liability, and pain and suffering expenses. Despite the large amount of resources and effort directed at preventing falls, falls and ladder falls still plague the construction industry.

A breakthrough product that could significantly reduce the number of falls and specifically falls from ladders is the connected “smart” ladder. A connected “smart” ladder places wireless sensor on ladders to detect and issue instant alerts of unsafe ladder use. The technology has evolved to the point where the ladder can detect nearly 100 separate unsafe scenarios, issue alerts and capture data to enable the study of accidents, near misses and trends. An automated system within a “smart” ladder that collects data, identifies potentially high-risk use, notifies workers and responsible supervisors, reduces the probability of having an accident due to unidentified hazards. Awareness is a tremendous advantage as it gives the user and others an ability to asses if there is a problem and how any issues might be addressed in advance of negative consequences such as an incident or accident.

Fall Reduction Through User Notifications

One of the most obvious ways a “smart” ladder could reduce accidents is through notification to the user that the current ladder use is approaching an event. A common example people experience every day is driving an automobile with active blind spot monitoring. Blind spot monitoring systems notify the driver when another vehicle comes too close to the driver’s vehicle. An audible noise or flashing light in the driver’s peripheral vision notifies the driver of the impending collision and allow the driver to return to the previous lane.

Like blind spot notification, a “smart” ladder user that is notified that the activity is exceeding the safe tolerances can use this information, return to safe use and desist from use that might result in an accident. Common examples include exceeding the ladder’s weight limit, leaning too far to one side on the ladder, and standing on the top steps of the ladder. The notifications give the user direct feedback and information helpful to avoid preventable accidents.

Conclusion

Our society and construction industry are changing in the current age of technological innovation and data. There are always concerns about data collection, but on balance, safety-oriented data can also create a positive impact. Connected “smart” ladders are an example of technology that is within our reach and has the potential to reduce accidents and fatalities, and generally improve the wellbeing of workers and their families.

Peter Simon, JD, CSP, is risk manager & director of plans and logistics at Total Safety Consulting, Bayonne, N.J. 

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