Rise of the machines: the technology making work at height safer

Construction News looks at the technological innovations that are helping make work at height safer

Lunch atop a Skyscraper

Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, by Charles Clyde Ebbets, published in the New York Herald-Tribune, 2 October 1932

How the world has changed. In October 1932, the above photograph, entitled Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, was published in a New York newspaper. It depicted eleven ironworkers sitting on a steel beam some 260 metres above the streets of Manhattan. To the modern eye, the picture is frankly terrifying. They don’t appear to be wearing any form of safety harness to prevent them plunging to their deaths and don’t seem the least bit concerned. Rather, they are chatting, smiling, eating their sandwiches and smoking.

Fast forward almost a century and the construction industry is a very different beast. Today, not only is health and safety taken extremely seriously, it is also among the more innovative parts of the construction sector, with huge efforts being made to harness cutting-edge technology to keep workers safe.

This comes in many forms, from efforts to minimise the dangers of human error when working at height to preventing the need for workers to leave the ground in the first place. However, it should be remembered that technology cannot completely eliminate risk. Indeed, it is possible that it introduces new risks.

“[We are] seeing a period of change and innovation in the construction industry,” the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said in a statement. “This has the potential for significant positive health and safety outcomes alongside other benefits like improved productivity.

“However, innovation can also bring new risk scenarios. The suitability of any new technology therefore needs to be properly assessed and its use effectively controlled to ensure that there is an overall reduction in the risk profile of any work activity.”

Kingsley Clarke, operations lead at Southern Construction Framework, agrees. “All of the new technology is great and is absolutely making a difference,” he says. “The one negative [is] that it’s making project or site managers that are working on big sites more bound to their desks.

“People still need to be walking the site, seeing the things that other people are seeing and interacting with the people working on that site, in order to build a culture of safety. There needs to be an element of ‘back to basics’ from site managers and project managers. That can’t just
be overlooked.”

Bearing in mind those caveats, innovation can produce some big wins when it comes to improving safety when working at height in particular. Here, we feature some of the most progressive technologies and ideas.


B Robots Hilti JaibotIn terms of actual construction, Liechtenstein-based Hilti has been working on using semi-autonomous robots for a while now, with the Jaibot already in operation on multiple sites, drilling holes in advance of mechanical & electrical (M&E) installation. The principle is simple enough: if you can get robots to perform tasks at height instead of humans, you immediately remove the danger of working in such conditions. “It’s predominantly for overhead applications, although it can now work into the walls as well,” says Hilti key account manager Richard Brown. “The drilling range is 16 millimetres in diameter to a depth of 100 millimetres, so it’s ideal for setting out M&E applications and for dry lining, as well overhead.”

He adds: “The idea is that it works from the BIM [building information modelling] model. The coordinates are put in on site and the robot will then go within a radius 10 metres at a time. You don’t have to steer. It will automatically find its way around and drill with a high degree of accuracy the holes that are actually required, so you don’t have to work at height. All the drilling of the holes is actually done by the robot itself. You’re working off the latest BIM model that’s been imported directly, so you’re not misreading drawings. It saves time.”

In addition to removing the danger of working at height, using the Jaibot also means that human operatives do not have to worry about inhaling potentially damaging dust created from the drilling process. “It goes in through a suction system into the robot itself” says Brown. “So, it then has to be removed but it’s all bagged up and sealed and then disposed of. It also stops the damage caused to people by vibration, especially as they get older.”

For now, the application of the Jaibot is limited, but Hilti is working on next-generation applications. “This is only the first generation for us,” says Brown. “It can now drill into walls; it can now drill into metal deck. These are the advancements that have happened just in the past 18 months or so. In the future, I expect it will be able to drill much larger and deeper holes. One of the challenges is to get something like this that can operate in the tunnel environment.”

Virtual reality

Virtual reality shutterstockVirtual reality (VR) is being used to improve health and safety training. According to Kingsley Clarke, operations lead at Southern Construction Framework (SCF), it was Willmott Dixon, one of the framework’s tier one contractors, that introduced the technology around a year ago. “They’re rolling out training packages where the operatives on site are put into a VR experience, where they are witnessing an accident,” he says. “They can look around and see what happened. The concept is to try and make people realise how that tiny little thing that somebody ignored can cascade into an accident.”

Rather than animation, the VR experience uses film footage in which actors role play the circumstances that led up to an actual accident. Filming is done on site, although work stops for the duration of the shoot. The idea is to make the scenario as realistic as possible and allow trainees to be fully immersed in the action. “It’s now largely being adopted by a lot of contractors because it’s a really powerful way of making the point,” says Clarke. “It should become the industry norm. Frankly, I think that a lot of courses are just talking shops with people looking at their phones while they’re doing it. VR is a way of making courses more impactful.”

Unlike some technologies, the use of VR in safety training doesn’t lead directly to cost savings, says Clarke, but that misses the wider point. “It’s probably not a cost saving; it’s probably costing more. But clearly if it’s preventing accidents and therefore preventing downtime on sites, there is a net benefit, although it’s quite hard to measure.”

Combined with building information modelling (BIM), VR can also be used to help facilities managers get to know the buildings they will be responsible for long before they are completed. According to Clarke, that has substantial benefits when it comes to health and safety, not least when working at height. “It’s been notorious that a full BIM model is just handed over to a facilities manager, who in the public sector could well be a school caretaker or part-time maintenance technician,” he says. “VR has been instrumental in allowing them to see and input into what the maintenance of the building is going to be like before it’s built.

“It means that they’re not learning everything all at once and putting themselves through that risky process of having all these critical systems at the same time. So they can incrementally familiarise themselves with the buildings and the whole team can do that rather than just one person who’s maybe the nominated attendee at a meeting.”


Drones shutterstockDrones are already being used to negate the need to have employees working at height in a range of circumstances. At SCF, Clarke points to a Kier project in Plymouth. “It’s been trialling drones for a lot of different things,” he says. “They’ve been used to help with geotechnical surveys covering the whole site. They’re also being used to measure the materials that are on site in order to make the quantity-surveying processes quicker. And they’re being used to potentially spot hazards or when things are not in the right place.”

Drones can increase efficiency and productivity as well as enhancing safety. “They can get information back to people sat at their desks much more quickly compared with needing to have somebody physically going to and walking around the site,” says Clarke. “It can also be done when there’s no work scheduled to be happening so it doesn’t cause downtime. It’s largely done within an hour and then it’s rendered and all that footage goes back [to the office].”

That last point underlines a key issue about the use of drones – in and of themselves, they only get you so far. The drone merely carries the camera – preventing a human operative from needing to do so – but if the images it captures are to be truly useful, they need to be interpreted, which is where the next level of technology comes in.

“The drone is up there taking lots of photos, but it then needs to be fed into a piece of software,” says Clarke. “The product we’re using involves a lot of AI [artificial intelligence] in order to interpret the results. It produces coordinated maps of the whole site and highlights areas to look at. Then the operator just needs to go in and look at the footage relating to the bits that have been flagged up.”

The sites that Clarke is familiar with are all large and relatively open, but his colleague Adam Sanford, framework manager at SCF, says that they can also be used in dense, urban locations such as London, made possible by the fact that drones have become lighter.

“The technology means that they can be so much more lightweight these days,” he says. “Below a certain weight, there are pretty much no restrictions in urban environments over and above having a standard risk assessment. There is an overall operating ceiling, but they can be very flexible within that. These very light drones now have enough technology to have good cameras or to carry a payload like an infrared camera. You can get a really unprecedented view of existing buildings.”

Reg Rudd, product development manager at the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB), agrees. He says that drones can both identify small defects and give a real bird’s eye view of a building. “You can put it up in the air where you suspect a leak is coming from and see what is causing it, so it can be targeted,” he adds. “But it also gives different advantages in that you wouldn’t normally on the average site get a helicopter pilot to fly over the top of the building. Using drones is a very cheap and simple way of having a look at the whole set of operations and gives you a totally different perspective.”

The price of drones has come down substantially. That is, of course, good news. In many instances, companies will need to bring in drone operatives if they don’t have the skills in-house, which adds to the expense, but overall the technology is now genuinely affordable to most businesses. Unfortunately, the affordability may well come with potential liabilities.

According to Jeremy Woodcraft, consultant solicitor at Keystone Law, the cornerstone of any defence in a health and safety case is that the defendant is able to demonstrate that they did everything they “reasonably and practically” could to prevent an accident from happening. It therefore follows that if the use of drones can remove the danger of working at height, it is legally incumbent on an employer to do so.

“When you look at that in the context of working at height and the HSE [Health and Safety Executive]guidance, it talks about, in essence, the hierarchy of control,” says Woodcraft. “The starting point is that if you don’t have to work at height, don’t work at height. Is it reasonably practicable, for instance, to get a drone to go up and inspect something rather than cladding it in scaffolding and sending a bloke up with a harness or whatever it may be.”

Woodcraft has yet to see a case come forward based on that reasoning, but he does think it is a logical next step for the HSE. “They do talk about other kinds of perhaps less sophisticated technology that is expected to come into use – fall arrest bags, sophisticated harnesses for instance. There’s not much of a step to then say ‘well, what about a drone?’ You can see that it would be difficult to argue against it.”

Smart cherry pickers

Smart Cherry picker 1In May last year, a routine safety audit on one of Willmott Dixon’s construction sites identified that an operator of a telescopic boom – colloquially known as a cherry picker – was working at height without being hooked onto the plant with a safety lanyard. The incident prompted the team to think about how they could prevent operators from taking such risks.

“The challenge came about as to how to ensure that this type of incident not only could be reduced but completely removed from happening again,” says Willmott Dixon regional head of safety, health and environment Alistair Donaghey.

The firm reached out to one of its major supply-chain partners, Nationwide Platforms, for help. It turned out that Nationwide was already working on a system called Harness On. The technology effectively stops any mobile elevating work platform from functioning unless the operator has attached the safety lanyard.

Following a successful demonstration, Donaghey says that he and his team decided to put the system into practice. “We arranged with Nationwide to have Harness On equipment fixed to the machine on the project where the safety breach happened,” he says.

“The feedback from both the supply-chain partner and senior manager was excellent and very encouraging, so building on this wave of feedback Willmott Dixon and Nationwide got together to plan how the innovation could be rolled out not just on a regional basis but on a national basis.”

He adds: “Following up with various meetings we came up with a timeline that all Nationwide telescopic booms would have this equipment installed by 1 July 2023, so if our supply-chain partners or project teams hired this equipment, it would have the Harness On installed. From 1 October 2023, all telescopic booms were fitted with this device.”

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