KEEPING CONSTRUCTION personnel safe on-site during the COVID-19 pandemic is serious business. From safety guidelines to make transmission of the virus less likely to technology that enables heightened remote monitoring and site review, companies are working to ensure that construction sites remain safe as work continues or shuts down.
On March 25, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) published guidance documents for construction employers and employees to follow to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19. The coalition comprises 25 trade associations that represent all sectors of the construction industry. The resources are free, and construction companies can download the customizable templates in English or Spanish.
The material includes a thorough checklist for jobsite safety, a “toolbox” training talk, and two sample letters: one for essential industry employees who need documentation to travel to construction sites and one that can be used to notify employees if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed at the site or office.
The material details “how to prevent worker exposure to coronavirus, protective measures to be taken on the jobsite, personal protective equipment [PPE] and work practice controls to be used, cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and what to do if a worker becomes sick.”
Assessing On-Site Conditions
A survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that as of April 9, the vast majority of contractors had implemented improved safety measures on jobsites in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The survey—the fourth to have been conducted by the AGC in as many weeks—gathered information from contractors about the fast-developing construction industry changes forced by the outbreak.
Eighty-two percent of contractors reported an increased number of handwashing and/or hand sanitizer stations on-site, and 81 percent reported an increased frequency in the cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces, according to the AGC survey. A whopping 95 percent of survey respondents said they had integrated social distancing guidelines into their operations, while 83 percent reported they were following guidelines to minimize group sizes to fewer than 10 people. Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents had increased their use of PPE on jobsites.
Engineering consulting firm Thornton Tomasetti, based in New York City, is one company that has expanded its use of PPE to keep its engineers safe on jobsite visits. In the past the company provided N95 particulate respirators (masks) to workers in the field when dust levels were high because of demolition or grinding work or when there was the possibility of mold, according to Marguerite Jeansonne Pinto, P.E., M.ASCE, an associate principal in the firm’s headquarters. N95s, however, are in short supply due to the pandemic. Now, to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, “we are provided a mask when we arrive on-site—but a medical mask, not an N95,” she says. “We also have our temperature taken when we arrive and are forced to maintain spacing between workstations.”
The company is also expanding its use of drone inspections, virtual reality, webcams, and other technology to limit the field staff’s time on the ground at critical construction sites such as a temporary hospital in New York City that it is supporting.
Monitoring PPE and Social Distancing
Artificial intelligence (AI) company Smartvid.io, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is making it possible to remotely monitor COVID-19-related job safety on construction sites. On April 6, the company added a feature to its AI engine (nicknamed Vinnie) that checks site photographs and videos for a variety of preset conditions, including whether workers are wearing PPE.
The system can also identify personnel who are violating social distancing rules such as those requiring employees to work further than 6 ft apart and limit group gatherings to a maximum of 10. “Our software generates automated alerts for managers whenever Vinnie ‘sees’ these behaviors,” says Mike Perozek, the vice president of sales and marketing at Smartvid.io.
The software generates a daily report for every project team that includes both the number of violations and specific photos of the instances, according to Perozek.
Site photographs can be automatically uploaded from frequently used construction management systems such as Procore or Autodesk, and “monitoring insights are generated within seconds,” Perozek says. Results are available via mobile app or system-generated alerts, he says.
The system is web-based, and because of its prebuilt integration into existing construction management systems takes just a few minutes to set up. “It is a very elegant solution because we’re working on visual data that our customers already have, and we don’t require field teams to work differently at all,” Perozek says.
The company is offering a free 60-day trial of its “people in group” tag and other safety tracking features, according to an online announcement about the product.
Gauging Job Progress from Afar
The global sensor, software, and autonomous solutions company Hexagon also has a number of options that can help keep personnel safe on jobsites. The company offers “reality-capture” solutions that use sensing technologies to document the state of a jobsite at a precise moment in time, according to Matt Wheelis, LEED AP, who is responsible for global business development for buildings and construction in Hexagon’s Geosystems division. “Having trustworthy information representing jobsite conditions allows for a much fuller range of decisions [that can be] made remotely,” Wheelis says.
Hexagon’s reality-capture solutions include a broad number of options, from photo documentation that can be mapped onto plans or models to full 3-D point-cloud capture of jobsites made by handheld, tripod-mounted, or mobile solutions. “The information is [a] visual—often measurable—representation of the conditions on the jobsite,” Wheelis explains. “For example, a point cloud provided by a laser scanner shows the facility as-installed in a measurable way. Often this is [overlaid on] a mesh model, which can be compared to the planned installation as shown in a building information model.”
For projects such as the temporary hospitals that are being built quickly in many locations as treatment centers for COVID-19, this information can be invaluable for those designing and executing the work at a rapid clip. The data can substitute for some trips to the site while helping maintain construction progress and eliminating the wait for on-site reviews, he says.
The usefulness of the system also extends to temporary closures of jobsites, something that is occurring across North America as projects are delayed. “For projects that are shut down, the status of all progress and materials is preserved,” Wheelis says. This will be particularly helpful for projects that must be restarted with new personnel who will need to be updated, he says.
—Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D., is the senior editor of Civil Engineering.