Apps as partial replacement for robotics and automation systems in construction health and safety management

Jonas Ekow Yankah (Department of Construction Technology and Management, Cape Coast Technical University, Cape Coast, Ghana)
Kofi Owusu Adjei (Department of Building Technology, Kumasi Technical University, Kumasi, Ghana)
Chris Kurbom Tieru (Department of Construction Technology and Management, Cape Coast Technical University, Cape Coast, Ghana)

Frontiers in Engineering and Built Environment

ISSN: 2634-2499

Article publication date: 4 January 2024

Issue publication date: 14 May 2024

423

Abstract

Purpose

Robotics and automation are successful in construction, health and safety, but costs and expertise hinder their use in developing nations. This study examined mobile apps as a more accessible and affordable alternative.

Design/methodology/approach

This descriptive study explored the use of mobile apps in construction, health and safety management. It used a literature review to identify their availability, accessibility, and capabilities. The study consisted of four five stages: searching for relevant apps, selecting them based on versatility, examining their specific functions, removing untested apps and discussing their functions based on empirical studies.

Findings

A comprehensive literature review identified 35 mobile apps that are relevant to health and safety management during construction. After rigorous analysis, eight apps were selected for further study based on their relevance, user friendliness and compliance with safety standards. These apps collectively serve 28 distinct functions, including first-aid training and administration, safety compliance and danger awareness, safety education and training, hazard detection and warnings.

Practical implications

This study suggests that mobile apps can provide a cost-effective and readily accessible alternative to robotics and automation in health and safety management in construction. Further research is needed to accurately assess the efficacy of these apps in real-world conditions.

Originality/value

This study explored the use of apps in health and safety management, highlighting their diverse capabilities and providing a framework for project managers, contractors and safety officers to select suitable apps.

Keywords

Citation

Yankah, J.E., Adjei, K.O. and Tieru, C.K. (2024), "Apps as partial replacement for robotics and automation systems in construction health and safety management", Frontiers in Engineering and Built Environment, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 90-100. https://doi.org/10.1108/FEBE-07-2023-0033

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Jonas Ekow Yankah, Kofi Owusu Adjei and Chris Kurbom Tieru

License

Published in Frontiers in Engineering and Built Environment. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


1. Introduction

Robotics and automation are widely used in various industries, particularly the construction sector, to address health and safety concerns. They outperform apps in safety management, particularly in hazardous settings where robots can replace human workers and eliminate life-threatening risks. However, for other safety-management functions, apps can match the capabilities of robotics and automation systems. Therefore, when robots excel in hazardous environments, apps are effective in other aspects of safety management (Bakar et al., 2019).

Recent research (Yap et al., 2021) has suggested that robotics and automation can reduce construction accidents. These technologies improve hazard detection, safety planning and inspections and increase safety awareness (Xue et al., 2022; Yap et al., 2021; Hou et al., 2020). Wearable technologies can also monitor workers' health and detect early signs of overwork or stress (Xue et al., 2022). However, construction adoption faces challenges, especially cost issues, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses, mainly in developing countries (Salento, 2017; Karakhan et al., 2018; Xue et al., 2022; Wu et al., 2021, 2023; Chauhan, 2021; Okpala et al., 2021). Financial hurdles hinder the implementation of robotics and automation for health and safety improvements.

Studies on robotics and automation systems in the construction industry have focussed on their implementation, barriers, impacts and trends (Amici et al., 2022; Navaratnam, 2022; Oke et al., 2021; Trujillo and Holt, 2020; Akinradewo et al., 2021; Cropp, 2021). However, mobile apps offer benefits, but there is a lack of literature on their capabilities. The lack of studies on alternative systems to robotics and automation has limited their use in construction safety management despite their potential to replace most functions.

1.1 Difficulties in construction safety management with robotics and automation

Akinradewo et al. (2021) found that in the Slovak construction industry, the cost and unavailability of R&A systems hindered their adoption. Delgado et al. (2019) made a similar observation in a European architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) specialist study. The high initial capital costs for robotics and automation are the main factors limiting its use. Huang et al. (2021) and Bademosi and Issa (2021) observed that R&A cost deters its use in China's construction industry. Mahbub (2012) and Aghimien et al. (2022) noted that the high cost of acquiring and maintaining R&A systems discourages their use in Malaysia. Acquiring technology is expensive, particularly for SMEs in developing countries (Arabshahi et al., 2021).

The characteristics of the construction industry present obstacles to robotics and automation (Aghimien et al., 2022). These issues include fragmentation, existing practices and resistance to change (Delgado et al., 2019; Trujillo and Holt, 2020). Aghimien et al. (2022) noted that the disorganised nature of construction hinders the adoption of Robotics & Automation. Fragmentation increases the deployment costs by requiring multiple R&A systems. These systems are complex, inflexible and pose the risk of robot failure, causing harm to workers (Bademosi and Issa, 2021; Dimick, 2014; Golizadeh et al., 2019; Yang et al., 2018). Furthermore, there is insufficient evidence for the effectiveness of H&S construction (Aghimien et al., 2022; Yahya et al., 2019; Delgado et al., 2019; Lavikka, 2018).

The construction sectors of developing nations suffer from a shortage of skilled workers (Aghimien et al., 2022; Windapo and Cattell, 2013). Training staff using new technologies is difficult (Aghimien et al., 2022; Delgado et al., 2019; Kamaruddin et al., 2013). Firms must hire, train, or partner with others to adopt new technologies (Aghimien et al., 2022). Bademosi and Issa (2021) and Trujillo and Holt (2020) indicated that a lack of familiarity with robotics, automation, and their benefits for health, safety and construction services could obstruct their adoption. Challenges in using robotics in construction include operational difficulties (Oke et al., 2023; Aghimien et al., 2022; Golizadeh et al., 2019), fear of harm (Oke et al., 2023; Dimick, 2014; Yang et al., 2018) and doubts about safety effectiveness (Oke et al., 2023; Akinradewo et al., 2021; Delgado et al., 2019; Lavikka, 2018). These significant challenges highlight the need for alternative health and safety management solutions.

This study evaluated the ability of apps to perform tasks typically performed by robotics and automation systems. This can help managers, particularly safety officers, choose apps that can replace robotics, significantly reducing their deployment in construction and cutting costs. This makes technological applications for health and safety issues more affordable for construction businesses in developing countries.

2. Methodology

2.1 Search for apps useful for the construction health and safety management

Relevant keywords and combinations were used to search Google for relevant applications. The apps were evaluated for their construction, health and safety. Apps without empirical evidence or those that were not useful for construction health and safety were excluded from further analysis.

2.2 Selection of apps

The apps were chosen for their versatility and range of functions, making them suitable for construction safety. Three criteria were considered: market popularity, relevance to construction, health and safety and features.

2.3 Examination of the tasks they are used to perform

The app list was analysed to identify the health and safety functions. This created a cross-tabulation of the app functions, allowing the number of health and safety functions an app can do to be determined and apps that can perform specific functions to be identified.

2.4 Discussions on the app's usefulness

This stage involves the identification, review and examination of empirical studies that authenticate functions listed to be performed by app developers.

3. Findings and discussions

3.1 Availability of mobile apps

App searches have uncovered several construction, health and safety applications (Supplementary Table S1). 35 such apps were identified, demonstrating that they are available for construction management.

3.2 Selection of apps

Our research identified 35 apps to help the health and safety management of the construction industry. We narrowed it to eight using strict criteria based on three parameters.

  1. Market Popularity: Only apps with a significant number of downloads and positive user reviews were considered, as they indicated validity, user satisfaction and widespread use in the industry.

  2. Relevance to Construction Health and Safety: We selected apps that specifically addressed health and safety issues in the construction sector, ensuring that they were directly applicable to the industry’s contexts and needs.

  3. Feature Range: The selected apps have a diverse array of functions relevant to health and safety management. This breadth of capabilities is crucial in providing comprehensive solutions.

  4. Empirical studies test: After the checks, the apps were empirically tested to verify the developer's claims. This was performed to authenticate the app’s capabilities. Apps that did not meet these criteria were excluded from the study. Supplementary Table S2 lists eight verified apps and their functions, which were analysed further. The apps cover safety compliance, threat awareness, first aid, education, hazard warnings and detection. These functions mirror the safety benefits of robotics and automation, respectively.

3.3 Accessibility of mobile apps

Mobile phones, tablets and other devices are required to use apps that are simpler and more accessible than robotics and automation systems. Apps do not require specialised knowledge or expertise for operation.

3.4 Capabilities of apps

An analysis of app features yielded a list of capabilities. Supplementary Table S3 displays apps with construction health and safety management features. Supplementary Table S3 compares the functions of the eight apps. Supplementary Table S3 indicates some apps can perform up to seven tasks. The safety management app and OHSA Heat safety tool have three functions, whilst four others have four. This versatility outperforms robotics and automation systems, typically designed for one task. Apps' functionality improves when combined, aiding in managing construction safety issues.

3.5 Discussions of the capabilities of mobile apps in construction health and safety management

Construction apps can help enhance safety performance and management of health and safety by providing a variety of specific features.

3.5.1 First-aid training and administration

First-aid apps, such as the Red Cross First Aid app, provide safety information and emergency guidance for workers. Its intuitive interface and detailed instructions facilitate swift, correct responses in emergencies and possibly save lives. The Red Cross First Aid application offers instructions for handling bleeding, burns and heart attacks. It includes safety tips and interactive tests, making it useful for construction workers to learn first aid. Adenuga and Ekundayo (2020) and Olaleye et al. (2021) discovered that mobile apps enhance safety training like first aid, as exemplified by the American Red Cross First Aid App. Studies suggest that the Red Cross First Aid app enhances users' first-aid knowledge and self-assurance (Hewson et al., 2019; Chu et al., 2021). Mobile apps such as these notably improve construction workers' first-aid skills and confidence (Puli et al., 2021; Tansel and Ülgen, 2018).

3.5.2 Safety compliance and danger awareness

The Safety App in construction improves hazard recognition and safety awareness and provides safety policies, checklists and reporting systems (Yap et al., 2021). It enhances safety communication, reduces incidents and boosts hazard reporting (Lee and Lee, 2019). Features, such as preset safety meeting topics, attendance tracking and document management, increase safety meeting efficiency and documentation, leading to improved safety compliance and hazard awareness (Aghimien et al., 2022). The Safety app boosts safety awareness, adherence and compliance and reduces accidents (Chu et al., 2021; Tarricone et al., 2021). Users value their designs, safety information, communication and progress tracking (Safety, 2021; Mendel et al., 2020; Safety, 2021). It enforces safety practices through reminders and immediate alerts (Chen and Wu, 2019). Akbar et al. (2019) found that the app reduced workplace accidents, improved safety regulation comprehension and corrective action ability.

3.5.3 Safety education and training

Hossain et al. (2023) stated that a safety-meeting app enhances safety talks and team interaction and its use in construction increases safety engagement. Roe et al. (2022), found that the app enhanced safety meetings, documentation, protocol comprehension, attendance tracking and accountability reports. Safety Culture (2023) and Lee and Lee (2019) reported that safety-meeting apps improved safety training and communication amongst builders, showing mobile apps' potential to enhance safety culture. The app offers safety resources, promotes regular meetings and aids in setting agendas, tracking attendance and taking minutes (Safety Meeting App, 2021). Contractors and project managers can use an app to access safety meeting data and enhance meetings, documentation and worker understanding (Akinlolu and Haupt, 2019; Jin et al., 2018; Safety Meeting App, 2021). The app improves communication, interaction and recall (Lee and Lee, 2019). Features such as safety topics and document management boost safety compliance (Brown and Smith, 2017).

Falls pose a significant risk during construction (Southwell, n.d.). The Fall Safety Pro application offers fall prevention tools and promotes safety. Fall Safety Pro (2021) found that an app increased workers' awareness of fall risks and compliance with safety procedures and decreased fall accidents at construction sites. The app offers safety guidelines, rules, hazard-recognition tools and interactive learning aids. The Fall Safety Pro app offers resources for evaluating fall risk, developing protection plans and teaching prevention methods (Fall Safety Pro, 2021). It aids contractors and project managers in minimising fall risks and adhering to safety rules. The Fall Safety Pro app was found to significantly improve workers' safety knowledge and compliance (2019). Given the high injury and fatality rates associated with construction (Jin and Goodrum, 2021; Chellappa and Salve, 2021; Halpin and Senior, 2020; Ceurstemont, 2019), fall prevention is crucial. The app offers features, such as fall distance calculators, safety checklists and training resources. Chen et al. (2020) reported that an app boosts safety compliance and decreases fall incidents.

3.5.4 Hazard detection and warnings

The Heat Index app, which is useful for construction workers in hot climates, calculates the heat index considering temperature and humidity and offers information on heat-related illnesses. Chung et al. (2021) demonstrated that the app effectively reduced heat exhaustion symptoms, indicating its usefulness in heat stress management. This app allows project managers and contractors to evaluate heat-related illness risks at construction sites (Chen et al., 2020). The software computes the heat index, providing safety advice based on the temperature, humidity and air movement. This aids in assessing the risk of heat-related illnesses using temperature and humidity data. It has been demonstrated that heat stress prediction using the Heat Index app, is beneficial for preventing heat exhaustion in outdoor jobs (Moohialdin et al., 2020; Sergi et al., 2021; Folkerts et al., 2021).

The OSHA Heat Safety Tool app aids in planning heat safety measures, offering real-time risk assessments, preventive strategies, reminders and education regarding heat-related illness symptoms (Morrissey et al., 2021; Sergi et al., 2021). The OSHA Heat Safety Tool provides heat index data and safety information to reduce heat-related illnesses amongst construction workers (Morrissey et al., 2021). Effective management of heat stress and promotion of safety measures are recommended (Asher and McAndrew, 2021; Folkerts et al., 2021; Choi et al., 2018). The tool's hydration and break reminders help lower heat-related illnesses and deaths by raising awareness (Bhattacharya et al., 2019; Dillane and Balanay, 2020; Aljaafreh and Almhdawi, 2018; Elston and Schmoldt, 2019). This has increased construction workers' safety awareness and the use of heat stress prevention.

The eWeather HD app offers in-depth weather information and assists project managers and contractors in safety decision making. Incorporating this data into safety systems enhances weather-based planning and accident prediction at construction sites. Accurate weather forecasting, like eWeather HD, can reduce weather-related accidents (Moohialdin et al., 2020; Smith et al., 2021; Schuldt et al., 2021). Real-time weather data, available through applications such as eWeather HD, provide severe weather alerts, enabling project managers and contractors to take safety measures (Dong et al., 2021; Frackleton et al., 2019; Majumdar et al., 2021). Apps enhance site safety and protect workers by offering weather updates and by reducing weather-related accidents (Lagasio et al., 2020).

Project managers and contractors can use the decibel app to control noise levels at construction sites (Andargie et al., 2021). The app monitors noise in real time and notifies the user when the levels exceed the limits. Chatzikonstantinou et al. (2019) showed the app helps with noise control and hearing protection. Lu et al. (2020) discovered that decibels could reduce noise exposure in construction workers. The Decibel app can help prevent hearing loss and other hearing issues by monitoring noise levels. Scientists have stated that software can reduce noise pollution. Loudness can be hazardous and cause hearing loss, as reported by (Li and Wang, 2020). Decibels help identify areas with excessive noise, allowing project managers and contractors to take noise control measures and protect workers' hearing. It promotes hearing protection and alerts when the noise exceeds acceptable levels. This application can be used to measure and monitor noise levels at construction sites to ensure compliance with safety regulations. This helps identify areas that require noise mitigation (Rieger, 2019).

The Ultra Pro app uses wearable sensors to monitor posture and mobility in construction workers and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disease (MSDs) (Wesley et al., 2021). They offer real-time feedback and alerts to encourage proper ergonomics (Zhao et al., 2021). The app features safety checklists and tools for recording observations and capturing pictures (Kahya, 2021). González et al. (2021) showed that Ultra Pro could help predict and reduce fatigue-related incidents and enhance worker safety (Sen et al., 2020). They offer resources for fall risk assessments, safety inspections and safety protocol documentation. The app also included incident reporting, danger detection, safety inspections and training materials. The Construction Executive (2019) states that the app allows managers and contractors to track safety performance, identify potential issues and apply preventive safety measures.

4. Conclusion

Apps can improve the safety of construction sites. Examples include Red Cross, First Aid, Safety Meeting App, OHSA Heat Safety Tool, Heat Index, Decibel Ultra Pro, eWeather HD and Fall Safety Pro. These apps provide checklists, incident reporting, safety documentation, safety awareness and safety protocols.

Apps boost safety and protocol adherence on construction sites, thereby lowering accidents. These apps are capable of providing first-aid instruction before medical aid arrives. The study showed that mobile apps enhance construction site safety through safety checklists, instant incident reporting and hazard identification and that enhances immediate resolution of health and safety issues that arise at site. Apps can even detect worker stress and absenteeism, enabling early intervention and remedial action. Apps can reduce choking, accidents, heat-related illnesses, poor weather, noise pollution, hearing problems and fall-related injuries. Apps therefore outperform robotics and automation in managing health and safety and increasing safety awareness. Apps achieve this through boosting employees' involvement, engagement and understanding of safety protocols.

Apps can therefore substitute for robotics and automation in construction safety management and potentially save lives, prevent or reduce occurrence of injuries and provide protection to property.

Supplementary material

The supplementary material for this article can be found online.

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Corresponding author

Jonas Ekow Yankah can be contacted at: jonas.yankah@cctu.edu.gh

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