The construction industry was the No. 1 workplace for fatalities in 2017, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). There were 4,674 worker fatalities in private industry in 2017, and 20.7% of those were construction workers.
These numbers make it evident that construction executives need solutions for monitoring the health and safety of their workers. And workers need the most efficient means possible to report and react during emergencies.
Excluding highway collisions, the top causes of death in the construction industry in 2017 were falls, being struck by an object, electrocution, and being caught in or between objects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that these four causes were responsible for 59.9% of all construction worker deaths.
These causes of death illustrate how difficult it could be for a construction worker to place a 911 call in an emergency. After a fall or struck-by incident, a worker may be left unconscious. A common scenario for each of these causes is the inability of the injured worker to make use of a cellphone to reach help. But there may be a solution.
Are Wearables the Answer?
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 96% of Americans now own a cellphone, and more than one-third own a smartphone. While these devices provide many conveniences, they remain highly limited in emergency situations.
For example, a cellphone is not able to detect if someone slipped off a roof, triggered a staple gun and sent a nail through their hand or foot, or experienced one of the thousands of other emergencies that can occur on a jobsite. The user is still required to be conscious and within range of the phone to be able to make a call for help. As such, in the case of mobile workers and lone workers, cellphones are not the most reliable or function-rich options for tracking and monitoring employee safety and health.
Additionally, in the case where a lone worker is confronted by a hostile third party, the cellphone is often the first item taken, so as to prevent a call for help. A better solution than relying on cellphones for emergency communication are easily worn devices, or wearables, that automatically report changes that could indicate an emergency or a device that a worker could easily utilize to express the need for help without having to speak or make much of a movement.
Fueled greatly by consumers rapidly adopting fitness trackers and smart watches, the global industrial wearable devices market reached a value of $1.64 billion in 2018, and it is projected to reach over $2.78 billion by 2024, according to IMARC group’s “Industrial Wearable Devices Market: Global Industry Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Opportunity and Forecast 2019-2024.”
The construction industry could become an influential customer shaping this evolving space. Already there are products like smart hard hats, smart safety vests, smart eyewear, and even stick-on patches that can monitor an employee’s movement, from location to body temperature and positioning. These devices eliminate the need for a worker to proactively report an emergency, but like cellphones, they have their limitations, as well.
For example, while the devices are able to transmit certain information about a situation to a manager or the human resources department, they do not create a direct line of communication between the worker and responder. If verbal communication is possible in the emergency situation, the worker would still need to place a call on a phone.
Consider mPERS Devices
A better option for the construction industry could be mobile personal emergency response system (mPERS) devices similar to those used by senior adults—essentially, a help button that can be pressed after a fall to alert emergency responders that assistance is needed. These types of technologies have become more beneficial because they no longer require a base station device to place calls, limiting their range of use.
Like other wearables, mPERS devices are small and lightweight. They provide state-of-the-art location technologies and also offer built-in fall advisory capabilities. Wearables with this type of functionality are able to detect both horizontal and vertical movement.
But taking it a step further than simply reporting a fall on the job via text message or red flag in a software system, mPERS devices can also eliminate the need for the worker to initiate a call for help. Instead, the device triggers a call automatically. And cloud-based technologies make it possible for central stations to immediately respond to the call for help.
Another benefit of mPERS devices over cellphones is longer battery life. Unlike phones that sometimes have to be charged multiple times a day, mPERS devices have fewer functions and do not need to be fully functional at all times. They can be switched to “off” or “hibernation mode” until the SOS button on the device is pressed. Once this action occurs, location information can be sent to a central reporting destination and an emergency call can be placed. This enables mPERS devices to have battery lives of up to 30 days on one charge.
Proceed With Caution
However, not all mPERS devices are created equal, and it is vitally important for construction companies to stay up-to-the-minute on software and hardware updates. A security flaw in the design of some mPERS devices recently had security experts recommending they be recalled because they can expose real-time locations and let anyone remotely listen in by activating the built-in microphone. This Chinese-manufactured, white-label location tracker was rebranded and sold by more than a dozen companies, including Pebbell by HoIP Telecom, OwnFone Footprint and SureSafeGo, according to researchers at the United Kingdom-based cybersecurity firm Fidus Information Security.
Telecom upgrades to 5G technology could also make some mPERS devices obsolete because they will no longer be able to get cellular coverage. Issues like these can easily be addressed by contacting the device supplier to find out what options are available for software and hardware upgrades that will ensure the mPERS devices being used in the field are optimized to keep workers safe.
Choose the wearable device that makes the most sense for your construction company and your workers. The most important factor is that you, as a business owner, as well as your company managers, take advantage of these new technologies that could potentially save lives and improve the safety and health of employees. The right device can make the only difference that matters in an emergency situation.