Jason Chandler: Building safer utility workplaces using advanced tech: Lessons from the U.S.

Burns & McDonnell projects director, Jason Chandler, looks at the advantages and safety improvements delivered by wearable technology which has been used widely in the US in construction sites during the pandemic.

Jason Chandler: Building safer utility workplaces using advanced tech: Lessons from the U.S.

Jason Chandler

For utilities, safety has long been the utmost priority. Now, as the ongoing pandemic has shifted workforces away from conventional locations, new technologies and supporting infrastructure are emerging that will allow utilities to elevate traditionally safe operations and construction practices even higher.

Wearable hard hat-mounted devices are among those technologies. Utilising technology within the emerging field of assisted reality (AR), they offer the potential to transform many utility industry practices.

While in the U.K. these technologies are still in their infancy, in the US they have been implemented successfully on a wider scale during the pandemic, improving on site safety and efficiency. So, what are the key lessons that the UK utility sector can learn from its US counterparts?

Assisted Reality Devices

Wearable technology devices are quickly being adopted for uses in many industries. Though based on augmented reality and virtual reality technology, they can more accurately be described as assisted-reality devices.

They are essentially small, powerful computer tablets, paired with cellular connections and live video with voice-activation functionality. For construction and industrial uses, they can easily be mounted on hard hats, enabling users to make connections hands-free, using voice commands for any function needed.

Devices can incorporate elements of building information modelling (BIM) and geographical information system (GIS) software to create a true digital twin of a physical asset. This capability is coupled with features like live video conference calling from a user in the field to up to 49 team members via hands-free video streaming. With this functionality, an on-site user can walk safely through a site whilst live streaming to remote peers and colleagues located in every corner of the country.

Safety and Wellness

The use of wearable technology to reduce travel to and from site locations reduces the risk profile of the construction scheme. Reduction in site-based activity, particularly by individuals not familiar with the project and specific risks, delivers clear safety benefits.

Wearable AR applications can also help navigate the challenges related to travel restrictions and health and safety orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic or any future emergency.

The long-term and ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions and various public health orders within the UK and worldwide have significantly disrupted traditional on-site project work. Travel necessary for on-site visits by large numbers of technical and engineering personnel often has been out of the question. As the UK has undergone various stages of pandemic lockdowns, wearable AR solutions have been deployed in greater numbers to solve unprecedented safety and efficiency challenges.

AR technologies are allowing on-site inspections or reviews to be performed by a single local staff member equipped with a hard hat-mounted AR device. With a field video interconnection to trained professionals in remote locations, on-site troubleshooting or construction inspections are being performed with little difficulty.

With this significant reduction in the number of people needed in the field, the safety and health benefits are easily quantified. The ability to network with a larger group than could attend a typical site visit also greatly increases time utilization, efficiency and overall value.

The use of wearable technology, combined with group video communications platforms that have been used extensively during COVID-19 restrictions, will become the preferred option for multiple-person, frequent site visits, improving the safety and well-being.

Technology to Meet Rapidly Evolving Needs

With fewer personnel in the field, technology-based connections are likely to be the standard from here on.

With wearable AR devices, critical connections can be established with ease and efficiency, enabling less experienced field personnel to perform complex tasks with live support from experts in remote offices. Equally important, the software eliminates time spent sorting through data, generating accurate workflows and guided forms. In addition, any data generated from the field is captured and organized automatically.

Wearable AR solutions are supporting every industry as workforce capabilities shift in response to infrastructure demands.

Supporting Operational Safety

Bluetooth beacons or GPS software also may be utilised to build geofences that define a virtual geographic boundary. Transmitters then enable smart glasses and other devices to perform specific actions when in proximity to them.

On a construction site, geofencing could play an important safety role. If employees lacking the required safety clearance cross into a restricted area, an alert can be generated via a notification displayed on their AR wearables. The geofencing software could be programmed to map a safe exit route. Should employees remain in or progress further into restricted areas, the technology could alert the project safety manager about the breach, identifying the offending workers and their current location.

The same technology can also be used to highlight residual risk and hazards that would typically be captured during the design process and communicated as notes on drawings and in the designers’ log. These issues and other important features such as sites of special scientific interest, environmental issues and constraints can also be highlighted to the user of the wearable technology, and alarms triggered should restricted areas be encroached upon, for example.

Technology Provides Solutions We Need

In this uncertain time, one certainty is that technology is stepping up to provide the answers needed for public health and safety on many fronts.

Communities within the UK and around the world will continue to depend on reliable and safe infrastructure. Utilities and the engineering industry that supports them will continue exploring new innovative approaches to continue meeting these imperatives, and wearable devices are among the most promising options leading the way.

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