Worker Safety Needs To Be At The Center Of 'Build Back Better'
This originally appeared in this post for the Forbes Technology Council by Guardhat CEO Saikat Dey.
Saikat Dey is CEO of Guardhat, a pioneer in connected worker tech. He’s led and consulted on industrial operations globally.
We need to come back better in a multitude of ways as the pandemic becomes endemic. President Joe Biden's Build Back Better framework takes aim at some of these challenges, attempting to help the United States "meet its climate goals, create millions of good-paying jobs, enable more Americans to join and remain in the labor force, and grow [the] economy from the bottom up and the middle out."
This includes the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November 2021, covering funding to rebuild roads and bridges, improve water and energy systems, expand high-speed internet access, revamp transportation programs, and much more. The larger bill, still being negotiated, would fund additional infrastructure projects.
Rebuilding our infrastructure will make us better, but we also have the opportunity and responsibility to make how we build better.
According to the Department of Labor, 5,333 workers died on the job in 2019—more than 100 people a week, 15 every day. One in five of these worker fatalities was in construction. Not only is construction the most dangerous industry in terms of worker fatalities, but the number of fatalities has increased in recent years. We need to face a hard truth: If we double or triple infrastructure spending with current construction practices, are we OK with the 10,000 to 15,000 worker deaths that could result.
Building back "better" must take account of those doing the building.
"Safety First" Done Right
The infrastructure act will create millions more jobs in repair and building projects. To ensure the safety of workers, we cannot leverage funding as we have in years past. Jobs, bridges, and clean energy can't come at such a cost to workers on the ground.
Passive safety and reactive post-incident response are the bare minimum. Advancements in technology—like worker tools that can directly sense threats—can allow real-time response, predictive intervention, and incident prevention. Investing in making our workforce safer can help attract new talent to these jobs.
Better technology and safer building efforts ought to be baked into the legislation itself, as we see in the transportation portions of the law. If done right, we have the opportunity to set a global benchmark for what safe, efficient, and effective industrial work looks like.
Here's how we get there.
• Leverage safer, smarter connected technology. Our industrial workers, including construction, manufacturing, energy, and other sectors, are in dire need of updated technology to better help them do their jobs. The good news is that Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology and Industrial Internet of People (IIoP) solutions can be put to work for people to truly revolutionize workplaces. Sensors on a railway track can tell workers a train is coming and to move, for example, and wearables can alert workers of lightning nearby and where to take shelter. The right technology can reduce risk, eliminate guesswork, create safer working conditions and even increase the bottom line. LNS Research surveys have shown leaders in environmental health and safety tech see 18.5% higher net profits than laggards.
• Lead in a labor market that prioritizes safety. We're in the Great Resignation, and 33 million Americans have quit their jobs since the spring of 2021. Industrial sectors are in a bind, ramping up projects while workers retire en masse. U.S. manufacturers believe finding the right talent is 36% harder now than it was in 2018. The manufacturing industry has seen a larger increase in resignations and job openings relative to pre-pandemic levels than any other.
We need to better showcase why workers, especially new entrants, should consider industrial jobs—from the excitement of creating something real to growth opportunities and working with cutting-edge technology. Even more, the work can't come at the cost of workers' health or safety. If this bill is going to be an effective jobs program, the jobs need to be safe ones.
Sector leaders must implement policies within their organizations that better support their workforce and create safer work environments. When infrastructure projects begin, our political leaders need to choose to work with organizations that offer competitive pay and benefits, continuously train their staff and keep workers safe. Prioritizing safety starts at the top, and when leaders turn talk into action, people will take notice.
• Set the global standard on worker safety and tech. U.S. workplace safety metrics have plateaued after years of reductions since the 1970s. Other regions have even more work to do. If the U.S. wants to lead on worker safety, now is the time to step up. We can't have a narrow scope. Leading in electric cars means leading in the infrastructure that enables them. We must go a layer deeper and invest in the people who build, maintain, and supply those batteries and charging stations. Worker-focused technology helps people learn faster on the job. It increases the quality and efficiency of their work. Most importantly, it protects them from harm.
It doesn't stop there. The construction industry alone needs more than half a million workers beyond its current pace of hiring in order to meet demand in 2022. With high rates of turnover, this wave of new hires needs to see a future in their choice. To get there, leaders also need to ensure that their workforce is properly trained, skilled, and reskilled so workers can do their jobs today and gain skills for tomorrow while following essential safety protocols associated with their tasks. This isn't about checking a box. It takes time, and it requires training programs to be integrated with work in the field, whether you're a 30-year veteran doing something new or a brand-new hire.
The infrastructure act and Build Back Better agenda can improve our national economy and make our businesses more productive. However, we could truly establish a leading competitive edge if we put the safety of our people at the center of the initiative, setting a new benchmark for what's possible in how we build. Who will take the lead if we don't?
Guardhat is pioneering end-to-end connected worker safety solutions for industrial workers. We offer cutting-edge, wearable technology; a proprietary connected worker platform – unrivaled in its ability to ingest, manage and analyze unstructured data; easy to deploy monitoring and reporting software; and a growing system of partner integrations.
Guardhat enables companies to monitor worker location, health, and work environment to shorten reaction time and help proactively solve safety challenges. We hold 15 patents in real-time location systems, wearable solution design, and connected worker software. If you are interested in our connected safety solutions – including situational awareness, environmental and biometric monitoring, multi-modal communication, RTLS, Covid-19, and other advanced technology solutions – contact us to arrange a demo.