Electrical contracting firms today employ more innovative approaches and are dedicated to keeping their contractors safe. This month, Safety Leader talks to five of the industry’s safety experts about the professional role of technology, and some key trends shaping the future of safety within the industry.
How do you see smart devices (phones, tablets, etc.) being used in the safety arena, and what pros and cons do they offer?
Sara Currie: We’re constantly looking for tools that will reduce the human error element of construction and help keep our employees safe. We’ve found that the best way to determine whether these tools are effective in reducing hazards is to have our employees vet them in the field.
In terms of pros and cons, I truly believe that technology is our future and that we can, and should, be using it to minimize risk. But I also feel that technology can reduce the emotional connection we have to one another and to our work. While we increase the use of phones, tablets and smart tools, we need to continue to be cognizant of employee engagement because technology can be detrimental to personal connections.
Mark Lynch: We’re using technology in a number of ways. On the training front, we recently turned our traditional classroom into a virtual training lab called the “VR/Mixed Reality Experience Center,” complete with smart TVs that put students in a variety of settings using VR goggles and a 360-degree camera. The system feels incredibly realistic, tests students on a range of electrical procedures and gives them access to situations they might not otherwise be able to experience, such as running conduit on the 55th floor of a high-rise, for example. Younger people coming into the industry today are very tech-savvy, and they love it. We also use a range of apps, including OSHA Safety and NECA’s PPE Selector. The old OSHA and NFPA 70 books we used to carry around have moved to the smart phone.
Barry Moreland: During our apprenticeship safety-training classes, we illustrate a variety of smart tools, mostly apps, that can be used to identify workplace hazards and apply safe work practices to particular situations.
In the field, technology continues to improve and can provide both safety managers and electrical workers with a way to reduce risk and forecast areas where their safety and health management systems can be improved. For example, some contractors have created QR codes which, when scanned, open up a document or video that reviews pre-use inspections, hazards of use and PPE requirements to operate a particular tool or piece of equipment. It might sound simple, but the information is immediately available and also aids in refresher training efforts.
Carl Potter: Each technology must be applied with caution and selected based on its ability to automate good processes, because automating poor processes simply leads to more poor processes. I observe that technology is usually sold to my clients as the “end all problems” solution, but many times creates more headaches due to implementation problems. Some of the issues stem from the fact that not everyone is savvy and accepting or that the technology has so many bells and whistles that people are scared to use it. Interface equipment can also be expensive and tricky to install and maintain. I’m an advocate of the careful choice and application of technology, as well as the process of ensuring that intended users have input into its selection.
Allen Sloan: Smart devices offer a lot of benefits, from identifying trends and bolstering productivity to reducing injuries, and I believe they’ll be integral to the future of safety. On the con side, however, a percentage of our industry’s workers still aren’t comfortable using computers and will need training to take advantage of this technology.
How do you see technology such as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and robots being used as a substitute for humans in high-risk environments or other activities? Are you concerned that A.I. could replace electrical contractors down the road?
Currie: We already have robotic devices doing some of the more high-risk tasks. As an electrician myself, I can’t see where you’d ever completely eliminate the involvement of a person in most electrical tasks. There will always be the need for a human to assess the situation and provide direction, guidance and control.
Lynch: Our electricians are highly trained and take their work seriously, so I don’t see robots taking away our workforce. Through the use of automated machines that can turn switches on or off or rack breakers in or out remotely, jobs require fewer workers today than in the past, but robots can’t wire a 1,200-amp panel. We follow project blueprints that change every day and robots can’t do that. I don’t see it happening right now.
Moreland: It’s hard for me to imagine too many ways in which robots could be used to replace our electrical workforce. Perhaps in some high-risk, very unusual situations or for repetitive tasks found in prefab work. A.I., on the other hand, is already being used in some smart technology. From building modeling and identification of conduit routing paths to predicting the next safety incident, A.I. is another useful resource becoming more commonly used in the construction industry.
Potter: If we just look at A.I., we miss the point of engineering that mitigates hazards and reduces the risk of injuries, illness and deaths in the workplace. Automation of equipment is a continuing process that started many years ago with interlocks that keep humans away from operations containing hazards that threaten injury or death. Robotics are used to reduce human exposure to hazardous work and opportunities continue to grow for those who can install, implement, operate and maintain technology.
Sloan: Personally, I haven’t seen anyone using A.I. or robotics on job sites in our area. I can see a potential use in its design, but the work will still need to be done by people.
Overall, what key safety trends, positive or negative, do you see developing in the electrical construction industry?
Currie: The growing presence of smart tools, PPE, apps, A.I. and robots will all be advancing and hopefully keeping our employees safer in the future. I’ve also seen more and more companies incorporating wellness and mental health into their safety programs, which I love.
Lynch: We’re seeing safety training that was once targeted at the workforce now being developed for contracting firm owners to help them better understand the different risks and hazards as well as the insurance considerations, OSHA fines and scheduling issues inherent in various settings. This type of training helps owners make more informed decisions about logistics, workflow, etc. We’re also seeing the industry embrace a greater culture of safety overall; years back, it was often “schedule over safety,” but safety is now paramount and engineered into the job. It’s about eliminating the hazard first.
Moreland: In our area, we’re encouraged to see the level of safety training our members receive and the efforts our contractors put forth to improve their safety culture and environment, health and safety management systems. As OSHA 10-Hour/30-Hour, NFPA 70E and foreman training have been mandatory classes for many years, the baseline for overall safety performance expectations is much higher than when I worked in the field.
Since much of the general safety training is already in place, this provides contractors time to focus on safety culture concepts along with their site- and hazard-specific training protocols. In addition, I see smaller-sized contractors making real progress with their safety programs. Often, these contractors don’t work on large-scale projects where safety is driven down from the client or GC and, as such, were never forced to perform at that level. OSHA compliance was their main focus. I now see these contractors moving beyond basic OSHA-based safety programs and striving to improve culture and risk-reduction strategies.
Potter: In the future, I believe that we’ll continue to see those supplying electrical equipment (trucks, tools, etc.) and electrical hardware (poles, cross arms, transformers, insulators, etc.) working together to make overhead and underground work safer and more efficient. We’ll also see knowledge requirements increase and physical requirements decrease as technology reduces the need for brute strength. It will be about working smarter, not necessarily harder.
Sloan: Prevention through design is a trend I see more and more of. One of the best ways to prevent and control occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities is to “design out,” or minimize hazards and risks before the worker begins their task.
What is your hope for the way safety is viewed today and in the future in the electrical contracting industry?
Currie: I think that safety is still a topic that some feel forced to think about, given that production and money often still trump safety when it comes down to the wire. I’d love for the future of the electrical contracting industry to be more open-minded in terms of truly believing that a healthy (physically and emotionally) and safe employee is a more productive employee. I don’t believe that it’s either/or. If you give back to your employees, teach them and create a safe place for them to work and learn, your teams will be better for it across the board.
Lynch: I hope to see a continued unwillingness by firms to put any workers at risk if an engineering control can be put in place first. Adding safety measures doesn’t lengthen a job or add costs; costs are actually higher by not implementing safety. As we always say, “A safety plan is only expensive if you don’t have one.”
Moreland: I hope safety will continue to be viewed as an industry value and that we reinforce to anyone thinking about entering the electrical trade that we understand the risks involved and will do what’s necessary to keep our crews safe.
I anticipate some safety challenges and shortcuts ahead as COVID-19 restrictions are reduced and idled projects try to catch up to their original completion dates. I would encourage electrical contractors to reinforce to their teams that production, safety and quality all play an equal part on every project no matter what the schedule issues may be.
Potter: It’s my hope that everyone with a passion for providing clean, quality electrical energy will continue to challenge the status quo. To face the future, we must continue to seek ways to use electrical energy efficiently without negatively impacting the environment. Similarly, I encourage our industry leaders to provide quality services without sacrificing the health and well-being of their workers. I coined a phrase a few years ago that’s been adopted by many of my clients: “Safety means reducing the risk of hazards and leads to a workplace where it’s difficult to get hurt.” We hope the industry will embrace an ideal of “safety, quality and then production” in all work being performed.
Sloan: The culture of safety has to start at the very top of any organization, and it’s essential that top leadership states and reinforces these values. In a positive safety culture, all personnel—from the front line to the senior leadership—share in the responsibility for a safe workplace. Therefore, my hope for the role of safety in our industry is to see firms embrace a complete top-to-bottom safety culture.