Diversity Drives Wearables Technology in Construction

Wed April 07, 2021 - National Edition #8
Lucy Perry – CEG CORRESPONDENT


Power gloves improve grip strength and dexterity for construction workers. Soft exoskeletons designed for the hand, they support workers during grip-intensive and repetitive tasks.
Power gloves improve grip strength and dexterity for construction workers. Soft exoskeletons designed for the hand, they support workers during grip-intensive and repetitive tasks.
Power gloves improve grip strength and dexterity for construction workers. Soft exoskeletons designed for the hand, they support workers during grip-intensive and repetitive tasks. The concept of construction wearables goes beyond cut-resistant gloves, steel-toed boots and brightly-colored hard hats. New technology is being engineered not only for work performance, but for worker gender, age and ethnicity.

Worker safety is a major component of the construction equation, and COVID-19 has made it even more critical. Rapidly shifting demographics on the job site demand modifications to personal protective equipment in the form of comfort, ergonomics and cutting-edge technology.

As safety consulting firm Safety Experts notes, the pandemic is raising awareness about the need for updated PPE designs and functions.

Reusable and see-through N95 masks promote better facial communication and 3D-printed masks offer a better fit.

Respirators now accommodate beards, and gloves now offer better fit and more comfort.

But today, the concept of construction wearables goes beyond cut-resistant gloves, steel-toed boots and brightly-colored hard hats.

Science plays a part in ever more sophisticated methods of protecting hands, eyes, ears and feet.

And new technology is being engineered not only for work performance, but for worker gender, age and ethnicity.

Improving Personal Protection

According to Safety Experts, many workers choose not to use PPE for many reasons.

The gear is not available, or the worker has not been properly trained on the importance of PPE use.

Another reason: The equipment simply does not fit properly.

"No matter the excuse, as an employer it is your responsibility to make sure your team has access to proper PPE," wrote Safety Experts.

The employer also must make sure the worker knows the how and why of PPE.

"Many of the injuries caused can be avoided," said Safety Experts.

The organization suggests contractors pair up with a local PPE provider for a worksite audit.

The goal is to determine hazards and get recommendations on the type of gear crew members need.

Diversity in Design

Historically, PPE gear such as safety vests was designed for men's bodies.

That's an issue as more women choose construction as a career field.

Wearing loose-fitting gear designed for men creates safety hazards for women on the construction site.

The National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) notes that "women in various trades encounter significant safety hazards."

The organization said that for years, large coveralls and massive glasses have impacted women at work.

"PPE that doesn't fit is awkward, which makes it hard for the individual to concentrate."

Hats that don't fit properly can fall off and eyewear is only useful if it's secured snugly. The same goes for footwear, noted NCCER.

Industry needs to "create work sites and structure tasks so they can be performed by [a] diverse workforce," said Melissa Edmonson and Scott Earnest of the CDC. This "without putting one group at increased risk," they added.

They believe PPE of the future must be designed to accommodate women and men of various shapes and sizes to keep all workers safe.

"Today manufacturers are aware that men and women require different types of apparel," said NCCER.

"As such, they've begun to make PPE to suit a range of body types and sizes."

And because of this, female employees have more choice. A wide selection "allows every individual the opportunity to find that perfect fit."

This includes eye, face, head and hand protection as well as footwear, noted NCCER.

Educating supervisors about the importance of properly fitting and functioning PPE is still an issue for some contractors.

NCCER said that improved safety training and educational initiatives can make a difference for construction teams.

Supervisors who are unaware, or team members who are uncomfortable speaking up, can prevent positive change, noted NCCER.

The organization praises manufacturers for working to make PPE universal and accessible.

"This way, female employees will become comfortable enough to wear it — and they'll know it exists in the first place."

Trendy Topics

Exoskeletons make the top of the list in futuristic wearables. But the future exists now.

Mobile machines powered by electric motors, pneumatics, levers and/or hydraulics, exoskeletons facilitate limb movement with increased strength and endurance.

The technology comes in various forms, designed to destress a body part or the entire body.

For instance, power gloves improve grip strength and dexterity for construction workers.

Soft exoskeletons designed for the hand, they support workers during grip-intensive and repetitive tasks.

The goal, according to Richmond, Calif.-based exoskeleton technology company, Ekso, is to help "improve worker safety and save more energy by the end of the workday."

According to the company, workers can adjust the grip and force applied to each finger via backpack.

This, as the lightweight and portable glove mimics natural human movement to improve strength and dexterity.

"Construction workers can use the gloves in practically any environment to improve occupational safety," said Ekso.

And then there are full-body suits of exoskeleton armor.

"One industrial-use exoskeleton offers a strength amplification of 20 to 1, which means hefting 200 pounds feels like lifting only 10 to a suit's wearer," blogged marketing firm Linchpin.

Noting that in Japan workers wear exoskeletons to continue working past retirement age, the company sees potential for the construction industry.

The machines "could be useful at any age, particularly for reducing strain-related injuries."

The bionic vest is another mechanical device designed to assist with construction work.

Ekso's spring-loaded device uses counterweights to take the stress off specific parts of the body at critical times.

Cooler Heads Prevail

A self-described "construction junkie," project manager Shane Hedmond blogged recently about destressing from the top down.

At the Consumer Technology Association's CES 2021, Feher Research unveiled an air-conditioned hard hat (ACHH).

It is designed to reduce the ambient temperature up to 22 F.

"Feher Research Inc. has taken a standard-looking hard hat and turned it into the world's first and only self-contained, portable air-conditioned headgear," wrote Hedmond. "This isn't like a standard A/C unit with refrigerants running through copper lines, though."

It uses the Peltier effect, the same thermoelectric technology used to cool the water coolers often found in offices.

Hedmond explained the hard hat can be powered in multiple ways, chiefly via lithium ion battery.

"According to the current specs, this battery will provide two hours of run time."

If you work a more stationary job, the hard hat can be plugged in for continuous run time.

"The ACHH is impressively light weighing in at 18.05 ounces. with the battery, only about 2 to 4 ounces more than a traditional hard hat," wrote Hedmond.

He noted that though it must still pass ANSI standards for head wear before it pops up on job sites, it sounds promising.

"The adjustable head band of the hard hat is removed to make room for the components of the cooling system."

The cooling system itself is sized like a baseball cap for optimum cooling effect.

Its designer, Steve Feher, believes in the benefits for the construction worker.

"The ACHH is sized like a hat and covers the user's head with a unique air flow structure for maximum head cooling."

This, he said also spreads any impact force over a larger scalp area than conventional hardhats.

"The conventional straps don't cover the entire scalp, in order to allow the scalp to breathe," he said. "Any impact force is transferred to the user's scalp with fewer square inches of area than the ACHH."

He noted his design covers more area and provides sub-ambient air closely to the user's head.

Other PPE Gear Enhancements

Construction wearables are a trendy topic in general for making job sites safer and more productive.

There is a laundry list of new construction gear technology enhancing worker safety right now.

Start-up company Loomia has created feet-friendly, soft-heating soles that can be used in shoes. Heating levels in Loomia's soles can be increased to help a worker power through frigid winter conditions.

The Halo is a 360-degree personal safety and task light that fits on any standard hard hat. Designed so workers can see and be seen, the light is installed by pressing down firmly and will stay on regardless of the task.

The Myo armband works with Brigit glasses to help workers multitask on the job site. Controlled by hand gestures, the two devices allow a worker to climb or dig without stopping the task to communicate with the crew.

The Flex ErgoSkeleton uses a posture pad to alert a worker if he or she is bending or lifting incorrectly or strenuously. Adjustment mechanisms are tailored to the worker's height and size, and a sensor collects posture info in real-time.

MIT has created pressure sensors that weigh the level of contact between feet and shoes to ensure an even reading of load data. If what a worker is lifting is too heavy, the device lets him or her know to bring in backup.

That's Progress

A construction site has changed a lot over the past few decades, noted Edmonson and Earnest.

"Construction sites will likely increase the use of advanced technologies," they said.

Drones, exoskeletons, autonomous vehicles, remote-controlled mobile equipment, 3-D printing, and BIM are among the list. "These technologies are expected to increase productivity and quality while reducing the cost of construction projects."

In addition, the new technologies can improve safety of workers for certain tasks.

New technologies could come with a potential risk, though, noted Edmonson and Earnest.

Injuries can happen when workers are not familiar with the technologies, especially during non-routine operating conditions.

"Hazards associated with the use of robots in construction could be significant because of ever-changing work environments," they said.

The need for multiple skilled craftspeople working on a project, and multiple employers sharing a common worksite also were cited.

Edmonson and Earnest also consider the interactions among many pieces of automated equipment as a potential hazard factor.

"Employers should consider these types of issues and potential hazards when integrating new technologies into the workplace," they said. CEG




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