Construction Safety Management in a Digital Age
As technology continues to permeate and influence the construction industry, one of the trends that we see now on a recurring basis is the move from paper construction drawings (blueprints for those that have been around a while) to digital drawings. The tools to make this switch a reality exist in their entirety right now. It is completely feasible to build a project today using digital drawings in lieu of all those rolls of printed plans, and if the process is implemented correctly the result can be a measurable increase in efficiency and accuracy, along with an improvement in communication and response time. But in this digital age it's important to remember that drawings aren't the only area on a construction project that would benefit from going digital.
Safety and health management is another segment of the construction process, along with the management of productivity and quality, that can be enhanced through careful use of technology. For example, most construction safety professionals have already recognized the benefits of some of the technological advances in devices that monitor air quality in confined spaces, and advances in personal fall arrest systems continue to give us new ways to protect people working at heights. However, when it comes to ditching our old paper safety documents and processes for more efficient digital processes, I still see a fairly low rate of adoption.
The benefits are clear; If all of my safety documents exist in a digital form, I can search them using keywords, I can carry all of them with me at all times, I can jump to the information I need instantly by clicking on hyperlinks, and I can give everyone access to vital information instantly because I don't have to print and deliver hard copies. In addition, if I grant access to the documents in a shared space in the Cloud, I can ensure that everyone on a project has access to important safety information any time they want it, without asking or having to track down whoever it is that has the binder full of paper.
Let's use Safety Data Sheets (SDS's) as an example. Every general contractor on every construction project in the United States (and many other countries) is required by Federal Law and OSHA Regulations to gather a Safety Data Sheet for every hazardous product that they and every subcontractor will bring onto a job-site, and they must make that information available to every worker on the project in a process known as the Hazard Communication Program (also called Haz Comm or the Right to Know). The majority of the projects I see today, still collect this information in the form of hard copies put into three ring binders. On the average size construction project this typically results in hundreds or even thousands of pages, which are many times accumulated in numerous binders that are put on a shelf in the construction trailer. This is a process that begs to be digitized!
To demonstrate this process (and perhaps to prove my point), I recently completed the creation of a course on the lynda.com division of LinkedIn that steps through the process of using BlueBeam REVU to ditch the paper SDS's and create a real electronic version of the old Safety Data Sheet books. There are, of course, a number of different ways to do this ranging from web based software and apps specifically built for handling SDS's, to project management platforms like ProCore that are made to digitize the entire construction management process. I just happened to pick a product that's a broad based solution to handling digital documents to show that these solutions exist right now, today, and they are ready to be used!
Bluebeam REVU is a product used throughout the construction industry by project managers, architects and engineers, to manage digital construction drawings. In my on-line course, I walk through how to use it with equal effectiveness to completely digitize the entire Safety Data Sheet program in a manner that is much more efficient than the paper process we still see on most projects. Not only that, but the result is compliant, searchable, easy to archive, and easy for anyone to access, at any time, from anywhere.
As we continue to use technology to transform the construction industry, let's remember that safety, quality and productivity are inextricably linked. Any time we evaluate a process improvement, we need to consider all three aspects. As we evaluate our processes in an effort to improve them, one of the biggest challenges we will face is trying to understand that we shouldn't be trying to figure out how to use technology to enhance our paper processes, but rather we should be re-thinking our processes all together, from a perspective that does not rely on paper to capture information. Sharing information in a digital form means greater access can be granted in near real time. When we have that kind of access to information that tells us what's happening on the project today, we can start to make better decisions, faster, to keep people safe tomorrow.