How the Pandemic Pushed the Construction Industry Five Years Into the Future

Alexandra McManus and Hussein Cholkamy | Construction Executive

On any given day, there are a multitude of variables playing out on construction jobsites, from maintaining daily logs to track hundreds of workers to creating daily schedules to keep projects on track. What made an industry that’s arguably about 20 years in the past get a dramatic technology boost five years into the future? A global pandemic that nobody saw coming. 

When COVID-19 made its first appearance on construction sites in early 2020, the domino effect of project shutdowns and labor shortages created uncertainty along with budget and timeline nightmares. The pandemic shook up the industry, with many projects coming to a screeching halt. As general contractors scrambled to keep their projects moving and workers safe, technology proved to be the solution. 

With jobsites shutting down, coupled with a nationwide labor shortage, real-time visibility over workforce variables, such as who was on-site, where they were and who they interacted with was more important than ever. Safe proximity tracking, virtual density and access control technologies helped construction companies gain more control, visibility and the ability to deal with the ever-changing regulations due to the global pandemic. More importantly, it helped keep their valuable workforce safe. 

TECHNOLOGY JUST MAKES SENSE 

On a busy jobsite with hundreds of people coming and going every day, technology became the friend general contractors could trust in times of uncertainty. Contractors began to rely more on virtual meetings, chat sessions and texts and text reporting of issues. Many experimented with wearables for workforce tracking. 

The focus on safety went beyond tool safety and OSHA’s fatal four to focus on worker health and who they may have come into contact with and where. This level of workforce visibility provided a better understanding of what was happening on a jobsite and enabled more accurate safety reporting. 

Projects with tracking technologies in place, such as hospitals and data centers, were able to resume construction because of their ability to quickly adapt to uncertain COVID-19 restrictions. 

Contractors using safe proximity tracking and access control solutions could manage daily logs and compliance digitally. As projects that were delayed due to the pandemic resume, there will be an extremely busy summer construction season. Tracking labor efficiency and safety concerns will be crucial to operate efficiently and react to emergencies. 

BETTER PREPARED FOR WHAT’S NEXT 

Since the pandemic, the construction industry is better prepared to develop response plans to a crisis. However, the pandemic has exposed weaknesses. Expect to see hybrid forms of construction and manufacturing where repeatable volumetric solutions become the norm. As schedule pressures increase against a constricted labor market, modularization is gaining popularity. 

Companies across the globe increased their adoption new tech solutions and rolled out new processes due to the availability of software, robotics, digitization and wearables. As the construction industry adjusts to the new normal, its future depends on what construction companies and their teams do next. The domino effect of projects that shut down in 2020 resuming work in addition to new projects means contractors will have to manage workers, keep them safe and avoid labor shortages. The adoption and acceptance of technology will help. As technologies continue to evolve, new solutions will become available to help the construction industry keep building more efficiently, safer and smarter lightyears into the future. 

TIMELINE OF COVID-19 CASES ON CONSTRUCTION JOBSITES

Throughout 2020, many cases of COVID-19 were reported on construction sites across the U.S. Many of which resulted in shut downs of job sites for cleaning and testing. Some of the most notable reports included: 

April 2020 
At least two clusters of COVID-19 cases involving seven workers were reported at the Kansas City Donnelly College construction site, which had to be completely shut down for disinfecting after each outbreak. 

May 2020 
38 workers on a Charlotte, North Carolina apartment tower construction site tested positive for COVID-19. The entire project was temporarily shut down for deep cleaning and sterilization of the site. 

A COVID-19 outbreak at the Denver International Airport jobsite affected 14 workers from an insulation company. The entire site was closed for several days to clean and disinfect. 

At the $106 million renovation of the University of Alabama’s football stadium in Tuscaloosa, workers tested positive for COVID-19 including the general contractor. The project was shut down for cleaning and testing before workers could return. 

31 workers on the $2 billion NFL stadium site in Las Vegas tested positive for COVID-19. The infections were linked back to local electricians working on the site. 

June 2020

A $200 million Appalachian State University project had 36 subcontractors test positive for COVID-19. 

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans was undergoing a four-year, $450 million facelift. The general contractor had to send 32 of the projects’ 275 daily workers home after they tested positive for COVID-19. 

Construction at the Texas A&M College campus was shut down for four days for disinfection after a COVID-19 outbreak among 55 workers and subcontractors. 

July 2020

At the $4.1 billion Salt Lake City International Airport construction site, 75 workers tested positive for COVID-19

October 2020

One indoor pre-construction meeting for a healthcare project in Portland, Oregon led to an outbreak among 13 employees. 

How Evolving Technology Is Disrupting the Construction Sector

Melanie B. Senosiain | Construction Blog

Take a look at a construction site today and you may see drones flying overhead, robots working on buildings, and construction workers donning wearable technology that monitors their health and activity. Construction technology has continued to progress with the times, and companies within the industry are utilizing the latest advancements more than ever before – often before an actual project has even begun. Communications are seamlessly delivered each morning with updates on the latest designs, while contracts, timelines and bids are reviewed via mobile applications and devices, and engineers use 4D models to visualize, and revise projects without a hitch. As technology has progressed, job sites have become safer, projects run more smoothly, delays have been avoided, and costs have been reduced. 

Project efficiency and jobsite safety for workers has substantially improved through the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) equipped with technology, as well as innovative tools and machinery.  Wearable technology can detect fatigue by monitoring heart rate, temperature and steps, while also detecting potential exposure to harmful toxins or providing proximity warnings for approaching vehicles and heavy equipment. Additionally, sensors mounted across construction sites can help confirm compliance with OSHA regulations.  As labor shortages continue to plague the industry, robots can be used to perform basic physical or repetitive tasks, which could compensate for human fatigue and a reduced workforce.  Video communications and teleconferencing tools with remote workers can be employed throughout a project to confirm proper procedures are followed on-site, and also offer support to field workers.  Drones can monitor dangerous work sites (such as bridges) for equipment malfunctions and security breaches, scan construction sites daily and note completed tasks, and perform topographical mapping surveys at a reduced cost.

With the introduction of new technologies to the construction industry, businesses should carefully consider how the utilization of such new and powerful tools can affect exposure to future litigation.  For optimal use, employees should be taught or re-trained on how new construction technologies work across the jobsite and in what capacity their uses are intended.  In some cases, it may be required to disclose the use of technology to the workforce, such as wearable technology and other monitors.  Additionally, drone usage throughout the construction site must comply with FAA regulations and local rules or ordinances. As technology continues to improve, the use of such wearables, drones, and sensors could become the minimum standard, forcing construction companies to embrace these evolving trends.  Although new advancements may circumvent many disputes, it will be important for businesses to take an ethical approach in their utilization of such tools, especially as privacy and the management of personal information is concerned.

It is important for businesses to maintain updated construction contracts, employee contracts, and to confirm conformance with state and federal guidelines when using new construction technology.  If you are currently using, or considering the adoption of new on- or off-site construction technology, reach out to the Construction practice group at Shutts & Bowen to discuss how our attorneys can help to ensure your company is compliant with applicable regulations, and can be best protected from future litigation.