Construction remained essential throughout most of the country at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, which left contractors in need of ways to protect workers and keep jobsites clean and safe — not just from the usual dangerous work, but from infection. With a bevy of new state and local requirements and federal guidelines came an array of tech innovations promising to help contractors keep their workers healthy.
To help pore through all the new information and platforms, four major contractors — Black & Veatch, DPR, Haskell and McCarthy — came together in May to form the NEXT Coalition. In August, Swinerton announced it had joined the coalition as well. The alliance works to pilot, test and tweak technology solutions in the areas of contact tracing, safety oversight and cleaner jobsites.
The members sent out a challenge to design firms, builders and developers to submit ideas and solutions. From the 84 submissions, the coalition chose five ideas to deploy.
Brett Spence, manager of process and technology at Black & Veatch and a point person for setting up the coalition, said that connecting a wider net of contractors was key to determining the best way to keep workers safe. The companies, which are normally competitors, came together in the spirit of combatting the virus and fostering safety together.
“When it comes to safety there is no competition,” Spence said.
Solving problems together
At DPR, the sheer number of new vendors marketing products was too much for the firm’s small team to handle, according to Tim Gaylord, East Coast innovation leader. For a contractor with hundreds of jobsites, Gaylord said, DPR was getting hundreds of requests to demo new solutions, so delegating the demos among several companies made it easier.
Once all the solutions were submitted, the members each selected ones they would use on their jobsites to pilot, then reconvene and share what worked and what didn’t. Ironically, sometimes the solutions chosen were not the best, but rather the ones that disrupted the current workflow the least, according to Hamzah Shanbari, manager of construction technology and innovation for Haskell.
“We’re looking at what is solving our problems today,” Shanbari said. “As a result, that meant choosing the option that fit the day’s problems, rather than the one that probably cast the widest net of solutions and offerings.”
For example, Haskell has been testing Smartvid.io, an existing construction artificial intelligence solution that uses imagery to flag safety issues onsite. When the pandemic broke out, Smartvid.io advertised that its AI-enabled product, Vinnie, would recognize when workers were not social distancing or wearing masks. Many similar solutions popped up, but Smartvid.io fit best with Haskell at the time, he said.
Haskell, which has implemented Smartvid.io on major projects, saw overall social distancing compliance improve from 75% to 78% from June to July, and face mask compliance improve from 82% to 90%.
By the same token, McCarthy found that Kwant.ai, which uses wearables and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to capture data on worker location, fit its needs best. The platform notifies workers of potential threats and helps facilitate worker scheduling. If a worker tests positive for COVID-19, it allows contractors to use geospatial tracing to discover who may have been affected.
The three other solutions being studied by the coalition are:
- GoContractor, an online contractor orientation platform designed to facilitate COVID-19 protocols. The platform provides contact-free registrations, standard safety orientations, safer check-in and check-out protocols and central compliance tracking.
- Opal, an IoT wearable real-time location system (RTLS) solution that addresses safety, security and operational challenges. If a worker becomes infected with COVID-19, Opal uses real-time alerts and reports to identify where the worker was throughout the shift and performs contact tracing.
- Versatile’s CraneView, which turns cranes into smart devices. The multisensor unit measures points of data to include load, weight, motion, rigging, unrigging, material location, tasks and idle times. The data can help insights that optimize crane utilization and production rates.
The plan for the future, much like the pandemic, is unclear, but the NEXT members feel they have minimized their risks against that the coronavirus’ uncertainty. Spence said he thought there would be further challenges issued down the road, and Shanbari said the focus is still on finding ways to improve practices and safety now, although eventually NEXT may make its findings available to other contractors.
When those findings are published, Gaylord said, they will hold much more value than the numerous pitches coming directly from tech providers looking to peddle their products.
“We’ve used it,” Gaylord said. “This will be an honest and straightforward sales pitch.”