John J. Meola, CSP, ARM, is the safety director for Pillar Inc. in Richmond, Virginia. He has extensive experience in developing and implementing construction and industrial safety programs. Meola is a part-time instructor of occupational safety at Virginia Commonwealth University and serves as treasurer of the Colonial Virginia Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers. He is the author of The Construction Safety Guide and The Forklift Safety Guide. He is an OSHA 500 Outreach construction trainer in English and Spanish and presents webinars. Contact Meola at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit pillaroma.com.
There is a surge of change occurring in and around the industry. Because there is arguably no other industry more resistant to change than construction, the ascendancy will not come easily. But it will be worth it. Theoretically, there is no limit on how far this process will extend, or how quickly it will evolve. So, if you plan on working in this industry 5 or 10 years from now, you should embrace the change because one thing is certain: You will not be able to resist it. Technology and demographic changes will alter the entire work environment, including construction.
Human capital is already at a premium due to generational dynamics. Baby boomers are leaving quickly, and there is a shrinking pool of talent available to replace them. The human resources (HR) department is burning through Generation X new hires with mixed results. Millennials are next in the hiring crosshairs. This means you should introduce a graduated hiring process that includes a battery of tests—psycho-social, physical strength and agility, overall state of health and wellness, and more. Advanced hiring processes are now imperative, and as a result, one large organization is calling their new hires “industrial athletes.”
The burning HR question is where Generation Z (those born in or after 1996) is going to land on the employment map. Will they opt for work in air-conditioned, digital-design studios or in mud-on-the-boots, hard-hat jobs? No amount of skills training grants will create the replacement bodies. Part of the answer lies in technology, an area of the industry which is already seeing explosive growth, especially as it relates to the following advancements:
- Machine learning and artificial intelligence—These are the game changers. The amount of research being poured into these two fields is already paying off and will see exponential growth in 3 to 5 years.
- GPS, audio visual lighting (AVL) and drones—Refinements in these technologies will enable highly precise metrics. You can now have a live feed of your delivery, courtesy of a precision GPS-guided drone. Data streams include traffic-jam avoidance, driver-safety behavior, red-flag notices and more.
- Telematics and wearables—Linked to the internet of things (IoT), wearables can report on all kinds of human behaviors, such as how many steps, lifts and bends the wearer made, as well as point out inefficiencies and risky deviations. Employee wellness and health monitoring is built into the application in the form of heat-stress advance warnings, break-time alerts, hydration and fatigue-level updates, etc. Insurance companies are currently investing heavily in this technology, with the aim of preventing soft-tissue and back-injury claims.
- Modular construction techniques—Giant automated factories are churning out entire pre-packaged buildings with the assistance of high-speed, ultra-precise robotics. China recently erected a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days using prefabricated modules.
- Composite materials—3D printers are already turning out rudimentary buildings using low-weight, high-strength, rigid composites, such as carbon fiber, aluminum, complex polymers, etc. A product designer in the Netherlands has rolled out a model for collecting floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean.
- Advanced manufacturing processes—Computer numerical control (CNC) machining, a staple in the manufacturing field, will find new applications to speed up building construction. Advanced programmable logic controllers (PLCs) just got a lot smarter, now self-teaching and self-learning. Precision plasma cutting, laser cutting and ultra-high-pressure water cutting are gaining traction in the industry. All of these result in shorter assembly time, enhanced quality assurance and control, minimal chance of error, and less inspection and testing.
- Nanotechnology and hydrophobic coatings—This field will change the face of the infrastructure maintenance industry. Bridge joints and bearings are now impervious to wear and never fail or clog. Self-cleaning drainage structures and catch basins are now available. Exterior surfaces can be made resistant to deterioration, graffiti, corrosion and more.
- Trenchless technology— An example of this is Tesla’s Elon Musk, who started The Boring Company in 2016 (a hyper-tunnel directional boring operation) when he became frustrated with the glacial pace of subway construction in Los Angeles, California. He is planning for a high-speed link from downtown Chicago, Illinois, to O’Hare International Airport.
- Exoskeletons and robotics—A single worker will soon have the capacity to replace a fork lift. Tool balancers and robotic-assist devices will minimize worker contact with production material. Dangerous jobs like confined space entry are destined to become digitized and robotized.
- Driverless vehicles and programmable heavy machinery—They’re already here and improving fast. Komatsu’s Intelligent Machine Control is at least 5 years old, and many manufacturers have their own versions of this concept. Entire fleets of mine-haul trucks in Australia are driverless. Toyota recently invested half a billion dollars in Uber for the development of driverless vehicles. General Motors Co. and Google have also teamed up to refine driverless technology.
The list of advancements goes on—renewable fuels; Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) efficiencies; sustainable materials; multi-function, high-strength lifting machinery; interlocking components and more—each one reducing the need for skilled labor.
As for the regulatory safety environment adapting as quickly, don’t hold your breath. A significant part of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) regulations is already functionally obsolete—standards and rules more concerned with rust-belt industries and long-extinct job practices. It is not likely that OSHA will keep pace with rapid technological changes occurring in any industry, with the newest update being advisories on how to protect workers from heat stress, due to the prevalence of climate-change discussion.
Construction work, by its nature, will remain a focus of OSHA for the near future, but the real drivers of safety in the trade are the general contractors, developers, owners, lenders and personal injury attorneys.
Innovation and experimentation are terms we do not normally associate with our industry. Because of the increasingly rapid pace of change and industry pressures to innovate, these concepts will be defining factors in our business in a few short years. If you plan to be in construction for the long term, you have some studying to do.