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Big Potential for Big Data in Construction Safety

October 14, 2015
 / Safety / 

The term "big data" has gotten plenty of attention lately from the business media and executives for its purported ability to fundamentally change the way companies work. What still remains unclear is what exactly big data is, and how to best utilize it in specific industries. While still in its infancy, the technologies and strategies underpinning the idea of big data, and the proven results they bring, make it more than just a buzzword, particularly with regards to new construction safety products.

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While it may seem daunting, big data could be a major opportunity.

"Crunching numbers no longer requires a room full of computers."

Defining big data
Even if it's become the No. 1 topic around the C-suite, the most successful executives may have a hard time articulating what exactly big data means and why it is important. Forbes contributor Lisa Arthur is aware of this ambiguity, and thought it helpful to distill the concept down to a single sentence:

"Big data is a collection of data from traditional and digital sources inside and outside your company that represents a source for ongoing discovery and analysis," Arthur wrote.

Many companies have already implemented some way to gather and analyze large sets of data, some before computers as we know them even existed. But the central tenant of big data references the extension of that ability to many more people than before. Crunching huge sets of numbers no longer requires a room full of computers and statisticians. Even gathering this information and distributing it to the right places has never been easier or more cost-effective. That means just about any business with a personal computer can hop on the big data bandwagon.

Strength in numbers
So reeling in big data is actually easier than the salespeople might lead you to believe. What it can accomplish for your business, particularly for construction, may come as an even bigger surprise. A 2012 study from Gartner Research ranked the construction industry as the lowest spender in the realm of information technology. Out of 14 other business categories, construction firms with annual revenues of $250 million or more were found to spend just 1.6 percent of their budgets on IT expenses, on average. Even larger construction companies with reported revenues of more than $10 billion spent even less - just 1.1 percent. This highlights the enormous growth potential for construction companies that take analytics seriously. A small investment in the right technology could position a construction company to become a serious competitor where it was once struggling for a foothold.

A great way to implement the huge analytic power of big data systems is in the realm of safety. One construction company in Brazil, crane and rigging contractor Makro Engenharia, has pulled ahead of the pack in that regard, using complex information-gathering tools to monitor the safety practices of workers in real time, Engineering News-Record reported. Makro uses telematics, which link up to computers in vehicles and equipment, to measure a number of variables including velocity and wind speed and send this information back to a central data center. From here, employees can constantly monitor the activities of crane operators and rigging specialists from around the world. If it sounds like spying, at least it's in the name of safety. In a dangerous operation like crane work and rigging at extreme heights, the slightest mistakes can create big problems.

"At first, operators felt a loss of freedom but eventually realized it was for their safety," Makro project manager Fabio Escaleira​ said.

Clearly, Makro made a big bet on complex data collection and monitoring tools, but it seems to be paying off in the form of enhanced insight into worker safety and efficiency.

Big data

Enhancing efficiency and safety
Canadian mining and construction firm LaFarge also utilizes big data concepts to manage the health and safety of its global workforce. According to an interview with Data Consulting, safety and operations director Chris Roach credits a new outlook on data analytics as a big source of savings for the company, not to mention a preemptive life-saver.

"It used to be that when someone got hurt, we would collect the data after the fact to investigate and try to prevent it from happening again," Roach said. "Now it's about leading indicators – tracking observations in the field and collecting data to get ahead of accidents before they happen."

"As the technology constantly evolves, so will the tools for tapping into data."

Under Roach's management, LaFarge has implemented big data concepts to streamline many aspects of the business. Their investment doesn't just extend to tracking worker safety, even though their technology for doing so has reduced accidents and freed up revenue for other projects thanks to less worker's compensation and lost time. LaFarge even has found big data strategies useful for registering environmental permits and staying current with government regulations, which can be difficult to keep track of when working in multiple countries at once. These are just a few ways that big data can be used to make an entire business run smoother and more efficiently, and as the technology develops more every day, so will new and innovative tools for tapping into the vast expanse of data now at every project manager's fingertips.

Putting it all together
As an emerging field with plenty of untapped potential, construction industry researchers are only beginning to scratch the surface of possibilities unlocked through advanced data analysis. In one example, the Construction Industry Institute studied how compiling and analyzing near-miss data from work​ sites could improve safety outcomes across the board. The CII researchers investigated not only how to make near-miss reporting easier for workers and managers, but also how to put this large batch of data together in a meaningful way. By interviewing professionals from a variety of disciplines, the study's authors created a new program for reporting near-misses on work​ sites, including a database for collecting the vast amount of information required. After implementing these new procedures and tracking the results, CII researchers found lower rates of reported incidents and a general increase in trust and communication between workers and managers. This is just a small example of the way data analysis and novel construction safety systems can make a real difference on any construction worksite.

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