Within the last 100 years, technology has drastically changed the construction industry. Nail guns, portable circular saws, and even a pickup truck are just a few inventions that have improved efficiency and output—but a few more recent inventions are really shaking up the onboarding process for construction workers, with positive results in terms of safety.

Training with Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) can help workers get a feel for working in confined spaces or at dangerous heights, all from the safety of a controlled environment. VR was once a fanciful dream of fictional institutions like Star Trek, but it’s now been in use for decades to train soldiers, surgeons, and pilots by immersing them in environments that mimic their future working conditions.

The same is true of the construction industry: from operating a crane to masonry work to welding, VR presents the industry with opportunities to conduct safety and equipment operator training, all within the context of an environment that presents no real dangers; just last year, 3M released a few VR modules to provide hands-on training. In times past, there was no other type of training than the classroom and on-the-job, the gross disconnect between them occasionally leading to injuries and fatalities.

Out of almost 4,800 deaths of workers on the job in 2018, a whopping 21% were in the construction industry alone. The leading four causes of death were falls (338), being struck by an object (112), electrocutions (86) and being trapped or crushed (55). These numbers are sobering motivators to focus on technological training solutions such as VR, which could save as many as 591 lives at work every year through more comprehensive onboarding.

Staying Safe with Augmented Reality

A similar area of technological development is augmented reality (AR), which blends the real-world environment with computer-generated visuals. AR can be used to develop more detailed safety plans and implement live training on heavy equipment, by immersing virtual hazards into the job site.

AR can also be used to rapidly deliver pertinent information and provide remote oversight, both of which can be used to circumnavigate safety issues or address them before they even become an issue. AR can help a safety checklist appear on the integrated display of a smart hardhat or goggles—which can help workers make sure they have the protective equipment they need to do their job safely. AR can also help managers and trainers provide remote guidance, seeing what the worker sees on site, so they can guide that worker safely through their tasks.

Learning How to Respond to More Constant Streams of Data

This realtime safety usage of AR will have implications for the training process—workers and managers will need to be trained on how to interpret a constant stream of data that relates to site and worker conditions. In a similar vein, wearable tech and e-textiles are creating new ways to gauge on-site safety, which in turn will necessitate onboarding discussions of what to do with the information that both workers and supervisors will frequently encounter on the job.

Construction workers have long worn personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety apparel like hats, gloves, boots, and industrial-strength work clothes. But now construction crew wardrobes are taking on a new level of safety, as embedded wearable tech becomes the norm. These wearables have a number of bells and whistles like sensors that gauge biometric and environmental factors, GPS, voltage detectors, and even WiFi.

For example, if site supervisors have established a particular area as hazardous and off-limits, alarms and lights can alert workers that they are stepping into a restricted area. Smart textiles, or e-textiles, can help monitor vital signs that can help alert supervisors if a worker is fatigued or intoxicated—which in turn could help prevent accidents before they happen.

Sensors placed throughout the site can help keep track of concerns like temperature, noise, dust, and volatile compounds, reducing the risk of workers being exposed to danger. This integration of analytical data will necessitate a new component to training, one that involves appropriate responses to varying degrees of hazards.

Drones, robots, and automated heavy equipment—oh my!

Another area where tech is reshaping construction training is in regards to the wave of new equipment like drones, robots, and autonomous heavy equipment. Drones can be used for dangerous tasks like building inspections and bridge-building, but since they cannot operate on their own, workers will need tech training on how to operate these airborne rotorcraft. And while robots can be used to take care of repetitive tasks like bricklaying, humans will still be needed to oversee the work and perform some of the more nuanced tasks like spacing rebar; even so

From this brief survey of all the advances in tech that are shaking up the construction industry, we can see that this new tech will both necessitate new types of training and assist in the process of onboarding workers. Again, one of the best parts of this technological wave is the way that construction crews will be able to work in a safer work environment.