Making construction safety social

New tool could save lives on the building site.

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Atlas: Research for a better world

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

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A social network system for sharing construction safety and health knowledge.
Quang Tuan Le, Do Yeop Lee, Chan Sik Park
Automation in Construction, Volume 46, October 2014, Pages 30-37

A new social network for the construction industry could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars, by improving communication about safety. The researchers behind the new tool, from Chung-Ang University in the Republic of Korea, say it could improve safety information and knowledge, preventing injury. Their research, published in Automation in Construction, introduces the prototype system, and tests it out using a real-life accident case.

Construction sites have a high risk of accidents. Although there has been a significant reduction in rates of injury over the last few decades, construction is still over-represented in terms of accidents: in the UK, it accounts for over 30% of fatal injuries at work, despite only 5% of people working in the industry. And it's not cheap: according to the UK government, injuries and new cases of ill health in construction cost society over £1.1 billion a year.

Previous research has gone into preventing accidents on construction sites, mainly by addressing training and education. However, the researchers behind the new study say it's time to rethink this approach, and address the breakdown in communication about safety and health. At the moment, they say, knowledge about safety in construction is nonstandard and vague, which makes it difficult for people to find the information they need.

"We think the lack of construction safety information exchange and knowledge sharing is a main reason that causes on-site accidents and thus low construction productivity," explained Mr. Quang Tuan Le, PhD candidate and co-author of the study from Chung-Ang University. "So, in order to achieve better safety performance, an enhanced safety and health communication system is necessary to identify and analyze safety hazards and risk."

The team created the Social Network System for Sharing Construction Safety & Health Knowledge (SNSS) using a combination of two technologies. The 'semantic wiki' lets users tag information, making it searchable, and the 'Protégé ontology' acts as a map to help people categorize information. With these two systems working together in the background, a user-friendly interface means that people can add, remove, edit, vote for and comment on information in the system, without the need for advanced computer science knowledge.

Construction social network tool

Social Network System for Sharing Construction Safety & Health Knowledge (SNSS)

Users input information about the accident – what happened and where, what equipment was involved, what the worker was doing at the time, and any supplementary information. Then the case is available for other users to comment on – suggesting prevention strategies and causes. Experts can then vote on the comments, indicating how useful and accurate the knowledge is. The resulting information is published on the website, and can be found by looking under categories and searching for tags.

To test the tool, the researchers used a real-life case of a construction worker falling from scaffolding on the third floor of a building, resulting in one death on site. They enlisted 12 students, 7 lecturers, 5 safety managers and 4 site supervisors to test the tool and go through the commenting and voting phases. The volunteers then scored various aspects of the tool, including ease of use and increase in knowledge accessibility. Overall results were positive, and all aspects tested scored above average for every group of testers.

"The results indicate that the interviewees generally agreed that the proposed SNSS has great potential in the creation of a good environment for construction safety knowledge retrieval in the construction industry," commented Mr. Quang Tuan Le. "The SNSS is applicable in construction academic and commercial area, and could support information sharing, knowledge representation in storing and managing construction safety data."

The group's future research will focus on two limitations raised during testing: the unfamiliar platform and incorrect use of tagging leading to knowledge transfer problems. They may also extend their research to look at the ways this could be used to develop an education or training tool.


Conversation with Mr. Quang Tuan Le and Professor Chan Sik Park

Such a new approach to construction site safety raises many questions – we wanted to find out more, so we spoke to Mr. Quang Tuan Le and Professor Chan Sik Park, two of the authors of the study, about the practicalities and future of using social media to improve safety in construction.

 In this podcast, Mr. Quang Tuan Le and Prof. Chan Sik Park, from Chung-Ang University in the Republic of Korea, talk about using social media to improve safety and health in construction.


Why is safety in the construction industry such a big concern in Korea in particular?
(Professor Chan Sik Park) Last year almost 500 people died on construction sites – compared to America it's three times more; compared to Japan and Germany it's five times more. Why is it so high? Korean culture is very quick-paced. They're trying to develop more safety tools on construction sites, but still we have many falling workers and they don't understand the safety issues. So we need to enhance safety education and training systems in our country. That's why we started this SNS based safety sharing system.

Previous studies in improving safety and health in construction have focused on education; what gave you the idea to approach this problem by addressing communication rather than training?
(Mr. Quang Tuan Le) Previous studies have emphasized the necessity and utilization of the information, rather than how to share and transfer the information in the construction industry. Accident information was not well disseminated, so we didn't know the current state of construction industry safety and health. Therefore our tool is a better communication channel where any people can share safety info, any time, any where.
Social networks and mobile computing engage users to share, store, update and manage information. Mobile based social networks in the construction industry will be used for sharing information in order to proactively prevent accidents. We expect the system could become an open sharing platform that is used for the world and can be revolutionary to replace our current construction safety education.

How effective do you think the social network approach is for knowledge building and dissemination?
(Mr. Quang Tuan Le) Construction and safety problems are communication related – they're due to not sharing, testing and delivering the right info to right people at right time. If we can use social networks, they could be powerful tools for construction safety. Every construction engineer and worker can recognize the importance of safety and comprehensively understand how to perform safely on site if they receive the right information at the right time. From this, construction accidents can be prevented.

What is the biggest barrier to this being used by the global construction industry? How would you overcome this?
(Mr. Quang Tuan Le) I think the biggest barrier to the system being used by the global construction industry is the language barrier. For example, In Korea there are construction workers from many countries – it seems difficult for them to understand the safety information. To overcome this barrier we've considered using auto translation to support our system. We also encourage people to use photos, videos and 3D models.

How much of an impact do you think this could have; could your approach apply to safety and health in other industries, or to other topics?
(Professor Chan Sik Park) This research can be used in other industries, such as manufacturing and mechanical engineering. That's an area where most industry accidents happen, so we can use the same platform in that area as well.

Where are you with the research at the moment, and what's next for your social network?
(Professor Chan Sik Park) We expect to create a commercial mobile-based sharing platform in the near future, once we get some additional funding. Construction workers are increasingly using their mobile phones, so we're going to develop this platform as mobile based, so people can share information real-time. Up to now, we have developed the pre-prototype platform system, so we need to develop pour concept more to utilize in the site.
We're focusing on the safety area of construction, and now we're also considering defect. Defects cause costs and schedules to overrun in construction, so we can develop that as a global tool.


About Automation in ConstructionAutomation in Construction 

Automation in Construction publishes research into the use of information technology throughout the construction process, from planning and design, through the construction, maintenance and operation of the facility, to the dismantling and recycling of buildings. Research published in the journal covers techniques like computer-aided design, product modeling and robotics. 

What did the Editor-in-Chief of Automation in Construction, Professor Mirosław J. Skibniewski, have to say about the research?

Construction is among the largest contributors to national economies of most countries, and among the most dangerous where injuries and fatalities abound in frequent accidents. Stringent regulations imposed by relevant professional organizations and government bodies have not done enough to eliminate this problem. Social networks are new powerful tools that have a potential for doing a more effective job. This paper describes an on-line Social Network System for Sharing Construction Safety & Health Knowledge (SNSS) which utilizes a semantic wiki web and ontology approach for better communication and representation of construction safety information. SNSS has been tested by a scenario of a typical fall accident on a construction site. The study underscores the potential benefits of an on-line social network that could be utilized to enhance communication among construction workers and other key stakeholders in this accident-prone industry.

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