Prevention is better than cure: The future of construction site safety

Construction sites are dangerous places to work, with many tools and machinery needing constant supervision and the ever-present prospect of life-threatening consequences to small mistakes. To manage these risks, the industry must move away from detecting and responding to emergencies and instead, look to connected technologies to provide a pre-emptive, proactive approach, as John Newbury, product innovation director at wireless solutions firm Ramtech, discusses.

From safeguarding hundreds of construction workers building a tunnel beneath the River Thames to protecting centuries of history from the risk of fire during refurbishment works at Nottingham Castle, guarding construction sites from potential disasters and emergencies is vital.

It is well documented that construction sites are dangerous places to work; the extreme likelihood of fire damage, theft, medical emergencies and other disasters occurring is widely recognised by both builders and insurance companies.

In fact, latest figures from the Home Office show that between April 2018 and March 2019, fire and rescue services attended 365 fires on building sites in England – increasing from 333 in 2014/15. And, according to the Health and Safety Executive, between April 2019 and March 2020, there were 4,566 injuries to employees on UK construction sites. Of these, 40 were fatal and 62% were classed as ‘over seven-day injuries’.

Emergencies and hazards can be highly devastating, putting workers at risk and threatening the lives and property of the public in surrounding areas – not to mention how destructive they can be in terms of damage to materials and delays to the construction programme.

A connected approach

Fortunately, right now, our world is more connected than ever before. The internet has become such a vital component of the world’s infrastructure that it is unlikely many of us get through our day without linking up to the web at one point or another. This has created its own ecosystem called the Internet of Things (IoT), which spans nearly 100 billion physical objects and enables them to communicate with each other. As the IoT continues to expand, the world is only going to become more entwined.

We are seeing this steady increase specifically in connectivity for a multitude of reasons. But the main one is quite simple: the customer is happy. As technology that is faster and able to store more data emerges, it becomes intuitively efficient and practical for the end user – having a real impact on outcomes and preventing disasters. Customers are more likely to adopt the use of technology that is easy to learn and offers a solution to an existing problem. With so many relying on technology now for work, school, staying connected to friends and family, and entertainment, it makes sense to look towards incorporating it into daily security needs within the workplace too.

Using technology to improve site safety

Although a construction site full of primitive tools and raw materials may seem like an unlikely place to find the latest cloud-based innovations, advances in technology is helping to bring 24/7 safety to sites. Smart equipment integrated with an IoT software platform creates a safer community where workers are connected with their environment, safety managers and their wider team. While the construction industry has been moving forward with the adoption of technology in recent years, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend to levels that were never anticipated.

Take construction sites over the past year. Some were running with a skeleton crew – with contractors being isolated and distanced from emergency services – and others were closed entirely due to government-ordered lockdowns

However, cloud-based systems were able to be quickly implemented, providing a sophisticated and adaptable safety solution for all building sites, regardless of their operational status. This innovation has given property owners, project supervisors and safety personnel the ability to receive alerts for a variety of events in real-time – helping to prevent accidents, unauthorised access, vandalism and disasters.

The pandemic has really led to the wider adoption of technology, simply due to the number of individuals on sites. To achieve social distancing, the number of personnel allowed on site was reduced, and technology has been able to fill some of the gaps in terms of monitoring safety systems and generating data remotely.

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“Wireless fire alarm systems have advanced greatly over the past few decades and contribute to solving these problems. Take our WES fire alarm system for example; it can connect to our REACT platform, which is a real game-changer for the industry as it has features that reduce risk and prevent incidents from occurring – avoiding potential loss of life entirely.”


A post pandemic world

Even after the pandemic has ended, unsecured construction sites will remain vulnerable to numerous threats, such as arson, vandalism, theft, and trespassing accidents to name a few. For example, the combination of waste and combustible material, wooden framing, and a lack of fire protection assets can turn one small ember into a full-scale blaze. A fire can wreak havoc on the lives of people it affects and overcoming the huge losses can be a challenge. Early detection of the threat of a fire can make a massive difference to the outcome and this is happening right now with devices that monitor smoke or heat.

However, in the very near future, the emerging technology and the requirement from the industry is a lot less to do with detecting and responding to fires – it is more about monitoring sites, identifying risks and preventing emergencies in the first place. The entire sector is looking to technology to provide pre-emptive, proactive management of risks; responding to them once they have occurred is already too late.

Wireless fire alarm systems and emergency alert systems have advanced greatly over the past few decades and contribute to solving these problems. Take our WES fire alarm system for example; it can connect to our REACT platform, which is a real game-changer for the industry as it has features that reduce risk and prevent incidents from occurring – avoiding potential loss of life entirely.

Currently, innovative wireless technology is being used to alert all relevant personnel to emergencies as soon as they occur, enabling the situation to be stopped in its tracks before it becomes a full-blown disaster. However, looking ahead, cloud-based data and integrating systems such as REACT with wearable devices, smart PPE and intelligent hard hats, for example, will take it one step further – raising the alarm to a potential risk so it does not even turn into a minor emergency.

Looking ahead

Traditionally, the construction industry has been slower to adopt the digital technologies that have been radically changing other sectors. However, the growing need to avoid delays and improve safety have pushed the industry to embrace various technologies, namely the IoT. And as we become more comfortable with the capabilities and security of the cloud and as unforeseen changes to our way of life become the new normal, the adoption of cloud-based technologies will continue to expand.

Any security system works best when its individual components work together cohesively. Machine-to-machine technology through the IoT now gives those components the ability to instantly and reliably stay connected and “speak” to one another and key personnel – greatly increasing the safety of employees and preventing risk and hazards.

Furthermore, customisable systems that create bespoke solutions to suit a site’s needs offer accurate, specific, personalised notifications and alerts – making it possible to achieve the goal of comprehensive protection from both internal and external threats on construction sites of all sizes, no matter how unique the needs and no matter the operational status of the project.

Firms that are embracing and adopting connected technologies are already reaping the rewards – being provided with peace of mind that sites have an additional level of health and safety protection, putting construction workers’ minds at ease and their lives in safe hands.

And as we look towards the future of construction site safety, the real role and power of technology must be outcome-driven. Using technology to improve the way things are currently done while achieving the same outcomes is not enough – the results really need to change. Luckily, the technology needed to do this is already out there; it just needs adopting by sites wanting to take a pre-emptive approach.