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Why AI Is the Future of Construction Safety

Oct 03, 2019
Two construction safety professional men talking and looking at a tablet computer

Artificial intelligence (AI) has found its way into one-third of U.S. homes.

That’s according to the Consumer Technology Association, which recently found that AI-enabled smart speakers experienced nearly 100% growth in household ownership for the second consecutive year. AI is almost as prevalent in the workplace. Twenty-two percent of companies surveyed in Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report said they were using AI to enhance their business processes.

But in construction, an industry known for its glacial adoption of new technology, companies are just starting to take advantage of AI for safety, design, planning, project management documentation and more.

“Field personnel in construction are challenged by technological advancement,” says Kimlee Lindgren, M.S., CHST, an OSHA Education Center lead instructor and curriculum developer for construction and maritime. “They want to build things, and adjusting to our current pace of change has given them another job to do. It can feel frustrating to people who have been doing this a long time.”

The McKinsey Global Institute cites construction’s reluctance to embrace new technology as one of the top issues the industry should address if it wants to improve its productivity relative to other sectors. In a February 2017 report, McKinsey says construction faced a 1.8% gap in productivity growth compared with the rest of the global economy and a 2.6% gap in productivity growth compared with manufacturing. Closing this productivity gap is an opportunity worth more than $1 trillion.

What Is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

In short, the term “AI” is used to describe technologies capable of performing or augmenting tasks that traditionally had to be performed by humans, such as reasoning or problem-solving. These same tools are sometimes also called “cognitive.” Here are four common types of AI:

  • Machine learning: The ability of algorithms to identify trends in large quantities of data without directly programmed instructions
  • Deep learning: A complex subset of machine learning that can analyze more abstract variables in images and speech
  • Computer vision: An application of deep learning that provides the ability to identify and extract meaning from images or text
  • Drones: Unpiloted flying robots of many shapes and sizes that use machine perception to capture and assess images and more, often in places where it’s difficult for humans to go

How Is AI Being Used in Construction Safety?

Several construction companies are testing the ways AI can elevate their safety programs. Skanska, a large construction and development organization based in Sweden, is one of them.

“We’ve been deploying 360-degree cameras on a lot of our job sites and dipping our toes into that world,” says Sara Casado, CSP, CHST, EHS director at Skanska in Washington, D.C. “We are using an AI software called Smartvid that is able to detect different objects using a smartphone camera mounted to a stick or hard hat.”

Smartvid has allowed safety professionals at Skanska to quickly identify missing guard rails, workers without personal protective equipment (PPE), fall exposures and other hazards, Casado says. Like all types of AI, this technology improves the more it is used.

“It’s an added layer of protection and allows us to accomplish more in a day,” she continues.

In addition to what Skanska is doing, Lindgren says she has noticed an uptick in the number of companies using drones.

The ways computer vision and drones are currently being used in construction safety highlight a significant limitation of this technology. Most of it helps safety professionals to react to hazards rather than to predict them – a problem that may be deterring risk-focused organizations from investing in AI.

Why Is Construction Late to the Game?

According to Lindgren, safety professionals can trace the construction industry’s technology-avoidance to three key obstacles: cost, culture and demographics.

“If safety leaders want to convince their organizations to make the upfront investment in technology, the first thing they need to do is a cost-benefit analysis,” she says. “How much will AI improve productivity and how will it impact the bottom line?”

The second step, convincing your team to get on board with technological change at a cultural level, is likely to be much more difficult. Casado regularly works to overcome this challenge on her job site, she says, when workers raise concerns about what will happen if they are caught by a 360-degree camera making a mistake.

“We need to have conversations that help eliminate that fear,” she says. “It’s all about education and making sure they understand that the reason we’re using AI is to make us all safer and more productive – not to get anyone in trouble.”

Third, Lindgren and Casado agree that the aging construction workforce and shortage of younger adults entering the skilled trades have produced an industry set in its ways.

“There’s a shortage of trade people going into construction, and we’re at the point now where we have a huge generation gap in the industry,” Casado says. “There’s a big group of construction people who are closer to retirement age and some of them believe, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’”

Is AI the Future of Construction Safety?

Construction safety professionals are optimistic about the ways their jobs will change alongside new technology.

“AI is not going to eliminate our jobs,” Casado says. “It’s going to open opportunities for us to focus on root causes, preventive measures and things that really make a difference.”

However, as people who assess risks for a living, safety professionals know it’s important to keep their eyes open.

“If there’s a task that a computer can do better than a human, there’s always a risk that safety jobs will change,” Lindgren adds. “But in the grand scheme of things, safety is about people, and our strength is our ability to understand human behavior and relate to others.”

The future of AI in construction safety depends on organizational alignment and willingness to take chances that could improve operations. The same technology used for identifying hazards could also help companies predict project timelines and check building quality going forward, Casado says, and safety professionals can use their influence to help other leaders understand these opportunities.

“It has the potential to be the future of the industry.”

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