Deakin University - Ambient monitoring and monitoring dashboard

By Professor Tony Arnel, Associate Professor Farnad Nasirzadeh and Dr Chandan Karmakar, Deakin University

Despite decades of attention and countless safety campaigns, the number of injuries and fatalities on construction worksites remains unacceptably high; however wearable technology could change that.

One death on a construction site is one too many. But SafeWork Australia’s interactive data dashboard tells us that 647 people have died while at work in construction since 2003.

Many injuries on site can be traced back to fatigue. Construction workers spend long hours on site. The Culture in Construction Taskforce says 50-plus hours a week is the norm for 64 per cent of workers.

Fatigue and burnout is a common problem in all industries. One large-scale study from the US National Safety Council found that 69 per cent of employees – many of whom work in safety-critical industries – are tired at work.

Construction is a physically demanding, high stress job with tight deadlines and a shrinking pool of workers willing to take on the task. Burnout may escalate to health and safety issues in the sector.

Record infrastructure investment has led to serious skills shortfalls across most job roles. Labour shortages – the Culture in Construction Taskforce consultation paper A Culture Standard for the Construction Industry has noted – are “notorious for causing other adverse impacts on mental health and increased safety risk due to increased need for overtime and worker fatigue”.

How do we know when people are feeling fatigued?

Traditionally, we’ve relied on the unreliable: self-reporting. But fatigue can creep up gradually, and construction workers can be so focused on completing their tasks that they ignore the physical and mental warning signs until it is too late.

SafeWork Australia says more than 15,500 serious safety incidents occurred on building and infrastructure sites in 2021. Analysis of the perceived causes of work-related injury on these construction sites is instructive. Two of the most frequently cited reasons for an accident were workers “being careless” or “just not thinking” – both classic symptoms of fatigue.

From hard hats to high tech

Deakin University established the Workforce Safety and Performance Research and Innovation group to investigate ways to minimise worker fatalities and optimise performance.

The multidisciplinary group brings together four schools (Architecture and Built Environment; Information Technology; Psychology; and Engineering) to test new technologies like wearable sensors, computer vision, drones and robotics.

A wearable sensor-based system can help us obtain an objective indicator of fatigue by measuring physical signs, like heart and respiratory rate. The group conducted its first trial of wearable sensing technology during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The trial was backed by construction unions and insurance company Incolink, and assessed alternatives to temperature checks. It collected data from 26 workers at two sites in Victoria. Four wearable devices – a vest, earpiece, underarm sensor and ring – were connected to a real-time monitoring system.

This triggered an immediate ‘red zone’ alert if an elevated temperature was detected, reducing the spread of COVID-19 and potentially preventing hundreds of workers from getting sick.

The trial found all four devices were more accurate and efficient than traditional temperature screening at site entries, and avoided long testing queues. It also laid the foundation for a long-term investigation on management of fatigue. Of the four wearable devices, the ring and vest were rated ‘comfortable’ or ‘very comfortable’ by 95 per cent of participants.

This technology could also monitor people in high-risk jobs, like crane operators, using these devices and set up alerts that allow site managers to take appropriate action before serious accidents occur.

The university is currently pursuing industry partnerships for phase two of the trial, which will expand the fatigue monitoring. The group is also refining the machine learning model for physical and mental fatigue measurement.

The cost of doing nothing

The Culture in Construction Taskforce is championing a Culture Standard that includes a 50-hour cap on the working week. Real-time monitoring of fatigue will build the evidence base to help companies think differently about people management and make more informed decisions about rostering, schedules and contracts.

Wearables are still at the experimental phase in construction – but the cost of doing nothing is clear. Deloitte puts the productivity cost of fatigue at almost $18 billion a year. The benefits go far beyond the financial.

By prioritising the wellbeing of workers, the construction industry can attract and retain the best talent, and ensure everyone returns home from their shift, every day.

To find out more about Deakin University’s wearables sensing trial and how your company can get involved, contact Associate Professor Farnad Nasirzadeh from the School of Architecture and Built Environment via farnad.nasirzadeh@deakin.edu.au.

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