BIM for Health and Safety in Construction

By Stefan Mordue

Too many people are killed and injured in the construction industry each year, despite the best efforts of all parties concerned. While many are utilizing Building Information Modeling (BIM) for efficiency gains and improved profit margins, perhaps fewer are considering health and safety. Even in times of economic downturn, construction is still one of the largest industry sectors. It is also one of the most dangerous and hazardous, and, despite the rate of injuries over the last 20 years being significantly reduced, construction remains a high-risk industry in which to work. This article explores the incorporation of health and saftey with BIM.

Models are not new. Over the centuries many landmark buildings would not have existed if it were not for the use of models. The world-famous dome that stands proud at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral has become an iconic feature of the London skyline. Sitting within the cathedral Trophy Room, you can still see Sir Christopher Wren’s Great Model which was completed in 1672.

Sir Christopher Wren’s Great Model.

Crucially, however, the model does not correspond with the finished building, so while it provides us with a fascinating insight into the ideas of the design, it could only partially be used as an aid to construction, and since it’s not an as-built record, it is practically useless in the postconstruction phase.

This is where the Building Information Model comes into its own. While there are no accounts of any injuries or fatalities during the construction of St. Paul’s, historically health and safety records are not good. The design team for the empire state building reputedly included an allowance — one death per floor — in the calculations for the project. In the event, only seven people lost their lives, which at the time was seen as a positive outcome.

While the concept of modeling is not new, perhaps the consideration of health and safety goes back much further. The ancient Babylonian law, Code of Hammurabi, dating from around 1750 BC, contains the following general rule: ‘If a builder has built a house for a man, and has not made his work sound, and the house he built has fallen, and caused the death of its owner, that builder shall be put to death.’ Similarly, the Old Testament of the Bible states, ‘When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.’ So is it possible to use models to improve health and safety? And if so, how?

Despite being fundamental to a thriving economy, construction is one of the most dangerous and hazardous industries in which to work. Although the rate of injuries and fatalities has reduced over the last 20 years it still remains a high-risk industry. According to statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK, there were 148 fatal injuries in 2012-2013, of which 39 were in construction. Although it only encompasses around 5 percent of employees in Britain, construction accounts for almost one third of fatal injuries of all UK industry sectors.

Main causes of worker fatalities in construction. (HSE)

Research suggests that the construction industry is saturated with traditional injury-prevention strategies. Therefore, perhaps a new approach to safety innovation is required. The potential to influence and prevent construction injuries decreases exponentially as the project progresses with research indicating the most effective form of safety program elements occur at the planning and preconstruction phases of a project.

Adapted MacLeamy curve.

Traditionally, preconstruction safety improvement techniques, such as designing for safety (DfS), have faced significant barriers that stem from the fact that they are largely designer controlled. While research projects that focus on BIM and health and safety have demonstrated its effectiveness, unfortunately many of these studies are based upon hypothetical simplified ‘square form’ buildings, low in complexity and often tested in laboratory conditions.

The application of technology in the construction industry can improve safety management. A number of technologies that have been adopted for construction safety have been reviewed by Zhou, Irizarry, and Li (2013). Technologies included information communication technology (ICT), sensor-based technology, graphic information systems (GIS), global positioning system (GPS)/remote sensing (RFID), and virtual reality (VR). Although the authors concluded that these technology applications can be effective in construction health and safety management they identified five further research gaps:

1. Lack of studies focusing on phases of preconstruction and maintenance

2. Studies ignored cost-effectiveness of technology application

3. Studies overlooked unintended impacts resulting from technology application itself

4. Incomplete technology transition from construction safety research into practice

5. Legal issues when applying advanced technology overlooked

Construction safety and digital design: A review by Zhou, Whyte, Sacks (2012) analyzed research on various digital approaches to construction safety in the design phase, and found that progress is less mature than in the construction phase. BIM enables the opportunity to detect and design out health and safety risks from the outset. However, in order to do this, designers need to be aware of health and safety considerations in the creation of information, documents, and models as well as how they will be needed during other phases of the project implementation.

Automated rule-based checking system — ‘square form’ and ‘low complexity.’

The construction industry is often compared to the car manufacturing industry. A big difference is that the design and construction of a car is often done by the same organization, and within the same facility and therefore a coordinated approach to design, construction, and health and safety can be achieved. Traditional approaches to safety practices in the construction industry have made designers responsible for the safety of the end users and the constructor responsible for the safety of the construction workforce. A number of concept such as Design for Safety (DfS) and Prevention through Design (PtD) work well within the ethos of BIM in that they promote collaboration between the project team throughout the whole delivery process.

There are a number of practical applications that can be developed at each stage of the construction process to improve health and safety. There is plenty of information that you can make use of within the BIM environment and many ways of doing so, such as linking up documentation and improving relationships between pieces of information and user guidance, as well as filtering so that only relevant information is extracted. Information can be gathered and translated into something useful, which adds value.

Contributing to the Model
There are three principal types of people who handle information in BIM:

  • Generators — Those who produce the basic information; e.g., the architect will produce specifications of ‘as-built’ drawings
  • Reviewers — Those who assess and analyse the information; e.g., service engineers
  • Receivers — End users of the information, such as the client who may then apply this information to visualizations, or a contractor who requires product details and installation instructions

Whether you are a generator or a reviewer of information, it is important to be mindful of earlier and later possible uses of that information and how it will continue to be applied and reused throughout the asset life cycle.

Suggested key health and safety activities aligned to plan of work.

Information in the BIM world comes from a variety of sources, including data bases, spreadsheets, and design authoring software, as well as BIM tools for cost estimation, model checkers and construction specification tools. The advantage of BIM is that it provides access to an environment that permits combinations of and conversations from these sources and formats, thus providing relevant information at all stages of a project.

Information may be arranged around a particular topic, and then coordinated and disseminated so that we can then find and understand it in a different application. For instance, information from a drawing showing the layout of a building can be arranged to show the particular hazards on each floor, these can be listed in order of risk, and a tailored report and schedule distributed to each relevant subcontractor.

Data generated for one purpose, as part of the specification perhaps, can be used elsewhere in the process. For example, information regarding the hazardous properties of materials may be adapted for visualization purposes during a training exercise to describe preferred methods of installation.

The historical benefits of coordinated data are well reported. The advantage that technology brings is speeding up the reporting process. For instance, some risk analysis and safety evaluations that could previously only be carried out visually, such as those covering the use of working space and clearance zones, can now be automated.

There are further opportunities here for BIM, which involve making new users of the data. These revolve around visualization. simulation, virtual prototyping, validation, and so on. For instance, digital information can be configured in order to preview a series of potential scenarios, so that users can assess the advantage and disadvantages of each one. This technique is already used by cost planners when recalculating the financial implications of a project of proposing different materials of methods. But we can now consider risk and hazards as a form of currency, allowing users to calculate, perhaps, the health and satiety ‘cost’ of a particular action. With the addition of time as a parameter, consideration may be given to how sequence of activities might affect health and safety on-site.

Sequencing model. (Tekla)

Reducing Risk On-Site
The following are simple but powerful tools that can reduce risk on-site:

  • Model-driven prefabrication and off-site fabrication — The opportunity to do more prefabrication of materials off-site in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Compliance checking — The ability to automate and check against set criteria or rules.
  • Scenario planning — The ability to construct the asset virtually before the contractor builds it. The contractor is able to explore a number of ‘what if’ scenarios; for example, looking at different sequencing options, site logistics, hoisting alternatives, and cost. Simulation, augmented reality, and virtual reality are now becoming common place within construction. The ability to scenario plan can also play a part in accident investigations and hazard predictions.
Simulating potential scenarios. (Simulation Centre, Coventry, UK)
  • Clash detection — The ability to identify collisions and mitigate them before they are constructed. Clash detection also considers possible collisions on-site. Through the use of tracking and sensing technology, working fatalities and injuries relating to being struck by moving construction vehicles can be dramatically reduced.
Tracking sensor in hard hat. (MyZone)
  • Visual communication — The BIM process enables all stakeholders to visualize how the asset is best constructed and has the opportunity to engage nontechnical people which can help client decisions. Visual communication can also play a vital role in worker safety training. The ability to communicate information visually can break down any language barriers and aid understanding.

BIM objects can play a fundamental part in information communication. They develop with the construction workflow and increase information appropriate to the particular stage. Starting out as a ‘generic’ representation of a construction product, the object changes to a ‘proprietary’ object, capturing the actual properties during the design and commissioning stage. Evolving from generic to proprietary objects during the design process rather than during the construction phases means that we have an opportunity in good time to see the effects of this evolution on project objectives such as performance, cost, and health and safety.

Information increasing along the project timeline. (NBS BIM Toolkit)

BIM objects, such as those in the NBS National BIM Library, provide us with opportunities to include important COSHH data and hazards. BIM is as much about the embedded attributed data and information as the spaces and dimensional data that we represent graphically. Aside from the physical dimensions of the objects themselves, we can also begin to consider further dimensions and zones; e.g., the minimum space requirements around plant, for access and maintenance. During operation and use, updated and supplementary information can be added to the objects. This may include maintenance records or details of replacement parts. Information can then be extracted for the health and safety file at the end of the project.

BIM object showing maintenance clearance zone.
BIM object with link to operational information.

Construction Operation Building information exchange (COBie) is simply a method for arranging data in the most suitable way to support the client of a construction project. It allows the information to be structured according to building elements, spaces, and activities. In this respect it complements, rather than hinders, the process of gathering the information in other formats. It can be used for health and safety information, to reflect the particular needs of the project and of the person who intends to use the information.

Traditional significant or unusual hazards can be annotated on a set of drawings as the design develops and cross reference to a risk register. The example below shows a simple but effective way of communicating information to others, by way of a 3D warning symbol. Information relating to the hazard can also be scheduled and risks and hazards easily located.

Visualization of risks. (Arup Associates)

Although it is not new, BIM has seen a huge uptake in interest in recent years. This is partly as a result of government mandates, but mainly due to great leaps in technology. While the emphasis is very much on value for money and efficiency gains, BIM can play a vital role in delivering safer assets. However, we should remember that rather than getting bogged down in a technical discussion, BIM is a behavioral change program more than anything else.

The incorporation of health and safety into BIM is neither something which is the exclusive preserve of the “technology generation,” nor is it something which is beyond designers. It is, as modern parlance would have it, a no-brainer.

Stefan Mordue is a chartered architect, construction project manager, and National Building Specification (NBS) consultant and writer. He is passionate about change within the construction industry. He is co-author of a number of publications, including BIM for Construction Health & Safety and BIM for Dummies. Stefan was part of the team that delivered a joint project for NBS and the United Kingdom government’s Building Information Modeling (BIM) Task Group, to produce a BIM toolkit in preparation for the government’s BIM mandate. He was a founding member of the CIC BIM2050 working group.

Learn more with the full class at AU online: BIM for Health and Safety, It’s a No-Brainer.



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