The State of Construction: High Tech + Human Touch

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From the first time early humans made primitive tools to build shelters, there have been construction risks. They built structures to satisfy the universal human need for shelter and little else. But humans developed competitive and creative drives that pushed them to build more elaborate and artistic structures. As those structures increased in complexity, the associated risks increased.

Construction is one of the most creative industries in existence. It always has been. Look at what humans have built. From the Pyramids to the Burj Khalifa.

And as construction projects have become more and more challenging, the industry has innovated new tools, techniques and processes to keep pace with the demands of ever more complex designs. And the insurance industry has likewise been forced to increase our creativity to address the resulting risks.

High Tech
One of the ways we’ve been able to mitigate construction risk is through the use of technology. Today, some of the most essential tools on a job site don’t use bits or blades, but bytes.

The proliferation of tech tools used to increase safety, reduce risk, enhance productivity and improve profitability has exploded in the last 5 years. We hear from vendors on a weekly basis with a pitch for a new piece of high tech safety gear contractors should be using. Sometimes it feels like auditions for Shark Tank.

From wearables that track a worker’s wellness to remote sensors that detect moisture to geotracking devices that monitor worker positions, there are devices that help address the pain points that contractors most acutely feel: Quality, Schedule, Budget and, of course, Safety.

But these connected technologies generate massive amounts of data, which is their job. However, that amount of data is a risk in itself. Imagine having a box of thousands of neatly sorted nuts and bolts. All different sizes. English and metric. Stainless. Brass. Zinc plated. Galvanized. Hex bolts. Tap bolts. Socket screws. Coarse thread. Fine thread. Now imagine the entire contents dumped out on the floor of the building you’re working on. That’s basically what it can be like trying to make sense of the huge number of job site data points. But if only it were that easy.

How do you get meaning from the data on your job site? How do you know what’s the most important? Then how do you know what the impact is on your project? Do you even know if the devices you are using are the best suited for your job site or project? And if you wind up measuring the wrong things or misinterpreting their meanings, you could be increasing your risks rather than lowering them.

Do you remember when everyone used to talk about Big Data? It always seemed like a monolithic thing. A big pile to be sorted through, like the nuts and bolts. But big data is even more complex now.

This time think about the pile of nuts and bolts and imagine they are now divided up into 100 piles hidden in multiple locations and on different floors. What thread size do you need? Where’s a matching nut. But first what style of bolt is most appropriate? How about the length? Oh, and the finish. How many of those matching sets do you need? It’s going to take time to find those piles and sort through them by hand. And you’ll waste a lot of going from pile to pile and floor to floor looking for the right combination.

Fortunately, there are powerful tools now to aggregate, filter and help us make sense of all these data. AXA XL has been dedicating significant resources to develop and apply Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning bring together data from the firm’s numerous legacy and custom systems to increase our own accuracy and efficiency.

These terms are sometimes misused or used interchangeably, however they are different concepts. Machine Learning is a subset of AI and uses algorithms to study small to large amounts of data to find meaning and interpret nuances. All the while, improving in accuracy without being programmed. AI is the underlying capability of a computer system to perform functions in a way that appears human, applying machine learning as a tool or set of tools.

AXA XL’s North America Construction team– working with several contractors– is piloting the application of Machine Learning and AI to help them gain a clearer picture of their risks not only from job site to job site, but from hour to hour. This will allow our team, as risk partners, to understand coverage needs, ensure coverage is crafted to fully meet those needs and price it fairly. The data picture will also provide our risk engineers with insights to further mitigate risks to people, progress and profitability. 

Human Touch
Like hammers, transits and welding torches, technology is just another tool. Construction is a high-touch, human touch industry. The single most important asset on any job site is the people. Under their hardhats is the most impressive software ever. With the ability to innovate solutions to problems, carry out complex tasks requiring hands-on experience that no computer can replicate.

Even with the emergence of machines that can make and lay bricks to build walls, human construction workers are the literal backbone of trade.

But, of course, humans come with inherent risks. Fatigue can lead to errors. A seemingly minor slip can lead to lost time or loss of life. Even the most experienced construction professionals are among the more fragile things on your site. Key issues, as we see them, slot into 3 primary categories: Availability, Age and Accidents.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction jobs are expected to grow roughly 11% between 2016 and 2026, outpacing other industries. And the number of new construction projects is growing at a rapid pace. The problem is, there aren’t enough skilled workers to meet the growing demand. According to the Association of General Contractors (AGC), roughly 80% of US construction firms are unable to fill all of the jobs they have posted.

The combination of losing skilled workers to retirement and not having enough new skilled workers to take their places is recipe high levels of risk on the job site. States like Oregon, Texas and Vermont are actively working to alter this trend through public policy changes, with the construction industry partnering with state officials. But more on-the-ground work in the top ten states where construction demand is growing, including California, New York, Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

With an ever-ageing workforce, the construction industry’s human risks increase literally every single day. Older workers are statistically more prone to error as reaction times slow and their soft tissue injuries take longer to heal. They are also at greater risk of dying from an accident on the job In addition, 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age of 65 every single day. But as we know, construction work takes its toll on the human body. The Centers of Disease Control put the average retirement age for construction workers at just 61.

The risk you face every day is that you are going to lose highly skilled and knowledgeable workers to retirement. When they punch out for the last time, that knowledge is gone forever. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Your new, younger workers need to be trained. In addition, your older workers who may not be physically able to perform certain tasks, may still want to work. Both groups could broaden their skill sets through a cross mentoring program whereby younger workers help older workers better understand tech tools on the job site, while older workers share the benefit of their extensive practical skills.

A recent study looked at millions of injuries among construction workers in Spain over nearly 2 decades. The researchers found that while all workers were affected by accumulated fatigue, older workers were affected more than younger workers. Lost time due to injury was higher among older workers, with those over 54 losing on average more 12 additional days of work due to injury. That translates to higher medical costs and impacts project scheduling and overall profitability.

But the effect is not just limited to the result of a fall or other traumatic injury. Fatigue or soft tissue injury from improper ergonomics can also lead to lost time and diminished capacity.

So while technology in the form of wearables and geotracking can provide data to help mitigate some of these human risks, they, too require a human touch. These human risks are in many ways every bit as, if not more complex than, those associated with data. Machine Learning and AI are incapable of addressing the underlying societal issues affecting workplace demographics – they can’t stop workers from retiring or attract new ones to the industry.

So, at this intersection of high tech and human touch is where we see a convergence of risk for the construction industry. In many ways, it mirrors the convergence of people and tech in society, with an increased reliance on digital tools and the data they deliver or generate. As a part of our payer to partner promise, it’s an area we are focusing on to develop innovative risk solutions the industry needs so contractors can focus on completing projects on time and sending their people safely home at night.

(Gary Kaplan is President of AXA XL’s North America Construction business. Views expressed in this article are of the author)

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