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High-tech personal protective equipment on deck to bolster construction worker safety

Ian Harvey
High-tech personal protective equipment on deck to bolster construction worker safety

Existing technology designed to be worn by construction workers is teed up and ready to go but the usual barriers of cost and risk aversion is keeping it parked at the jobsite gate.

While wearable monitors have been around for some time, they’re only being adopted at extreme high-risk jobs, such as petrochemical plants, oil rigs and remote wilderness locations where workers face hazards beyond slips and falls such as bears and wolves.

The issue, says Keith Beckles, CEO of TechMarq, a Toronto company marketing the technology, is cost and the general reluctance to embrace anything new.

“It’s probably easier in some people’s minds to lose one worker, or have one worker injured, than have to put out all this money for the technology,” he says. “I do see that changing one day, which is why we’re still pushing, but it will take some kind of legislative change similar to what we saw in the 1960s when much improved health and safety regulations came into effect following some pretty extreme disasters on construction sites.”

Wearable technology meanwhile is being widely deployed in many other settings, he says, from providing first responders an instant read out of a patient’s medical history or in many cases a GPS co-ordinate if they’ve wandered off from a retirement home.

Professional sports use the biometrics gathered in real time to gauge an athlete’s performance, distance covered, heart peaks and recovery, speed and temperature to warn of heat exhaustion, high metabolic load distance, accelerations, fatigue index, dynamic stress load, step balance and collisions.

Profession soccer clubs first started using the technology in 2009 and it’s most often embedded into a chest slip on.

Other versions are either in the form of a watch or a fob worn around the neck on a lanyard.

Getting construction sites generally to adopt wearables, however, is still stalled, says Beckles.

That said, it also took a while for hard hats, steel toed boots, gloves, ear and eye protection to become mandatory, so he isn’t too dejected and says it is a matter of time.

“They’re fitted with a panic button for users — and that includes patients recovering from surgeries or construction workers in dangerous areas — to press and sent an immediate alert with a GPS position,” he says

The national office of the Labourers International Union of North America (LIUNA) says it hasn’t looked at wearables in detail.

However, Sandro Pinto, director of LIUNA 183’s brand new tunnel rescue training facility says if something came along, they’d assess or look at anything.

“As far as the training centre goes, we are always open to testing out new technology in any sector that may potentially provide an extra level of safety for our members on a jobsite,” he says. “We would be open to exploring wearable technology for things like vital signs in the future and partner with a manufacturer or employer group if the opportunity became available.”

Beckles says the wearable apps are designed to send data into the Cloud through their own dedicated cell signals.

There is a cost factor, Beckles says, and it’s about $200 a unit and $25 a month for the cellular connection. Still, he says, construction companies have Walkie-Talkies that they pay for and other high-tech equipment and this is no different.

A unit can be assigned at the start of the shift and then returned at the end and reassigned again so it doesn’t belong to the wearer. The data is gleaned and stored and tagged with the user’s unique ID with the usual privacy protections.

“Aside from locating someone who’s missing within three feet, we can also geo-fence them so that if they stray into an area they are not supposed to be a flag goes up,” says Beckles.

At some point, and it’s in the works now, says Beckles, we’ll be in a Star Trek world where everyone has a communicator.

“It keeps track of their own safety, where they are and 5G is going to change all this,” he says. “So it’s going to happen.”

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