March 5th, 2020

5 Ways GPS Can Improve Trenching & Excavation Safety in 2020

Trenching & excavation work is one of the most dangerous jobs you could do on a construction site. Every year thousands of workers are seriously hurt by cave-ins, falls, electrocutions, and heavy equipment accidents while performing this kind of work—which is why OSHA consistently lists trenching & excavation safety as part of its “2 big areas of focus.”

But besides training and policy enforcement around using the right protective systems, what else can your company do to protect workers in the trenches? In this post, we explore the different ways your company could use cutting edge GPS products to do just that. 

History of Using GPS to Increase Safety in Construction 

Using GPS to improve safety on jobsites isn’t a new concept. Companies like Caterpillar have added built-in GPS sensors to excavators in the past, giving operators more control over the depth of their dig. This means fewer people working inside the trench to judge accuracy or depth. 

Then there are companies like Human Condition Safety, who’ve created wearables that use Ultra-wideband location chips to track the ergonomic positions of workers in the field, preventing injuries that come from workers using improper lifting techniques. And there’s Triax Technology, which uses a mesh network of wearables to alert managers if a worker has fallen on the job. 

But while these solutions do improve onsite safety, they also require lots of infrastructure such as beacons and wifi to work, making them very costly to deploy. They also are difficult to customize and their feature sets don’t seem to focus on preventing the most common trench related accidents.

Most interestingly, there’s a group of researchers that over the last few years have been testing GPS technology and its ability to increase a worker’s spatial awareness as a means of preventing common jobsite injuries. In 2017, researchers from the University of Idaho saw some success using GPS wearables with dynamic geofencing by tagging dump trucks and workers. They later followed this research with a series of papers showing how this system of of GPS wearables + dynamic geofences could work in related industries such as Logging, and how the accuracy of alerts can be improved with better receivers.

Location-sharing options by required bandwidth from least intensive to most intensive

However, researchers also theorized that the current out-of-the-box options were either too expensive or too inaccurate to be widely adopted. The most accurate GPS chips were less expensive than using UBW or mesh networks, but still costs thousands of dollars per device; conversely, the recreational-grade receivers researchers used in their experiments were cost-effective but produced so many false alerts that researchers believed workers would tune them out.

But the GPS chip technology has improved a lot within the past year.

5 Types of Accidents Next-Gen Geofencing Could Prevent

Now, with the right software, companies are able to get centimeter-level accuracy without deploying hundreds of beacons or spending thousands of dollars on each wearable. So as producers of geofencing software ourselves, we thought it’d be interesting to take a look at what kind of ways this technology can be used to protect those in the trenches.

NOTE: If you work in construction and are interested in any of the below use cases, please contact us at cleo.kirkland@zonetap.com to learn more about our pilot program.

1. Preventing Cave-ins Caused by Spoil Pile Slides

Marko Kaar, Excavation & Trenching Safety

What’s the Problem? 

When soil is piled too close to the edge of a trench, it can cause the walls of the trench to cave in and bury the worker, which is known as a “Spoil Pile Slide.” This is the most common type of cave-in that can occur on a jobsite. 

How Next-Gen GPS Can Help? 

By placing a GPS-enabled receiver on an excavator bucket, we can alert operators (and managers) when excavators are dumping loads too close to the edge of a trench. OSHA recommends keeping piles 2 feet away from the edge of a trench, but the right software will allow managers to adjust alert sensitivity.

2. Preventing Cave-ins from “Bulges” at the Bottom of a Dig/Cut

Marko Kaar, Excavation & Trenching Safety

What’s the Problem? 

The weight of heavy machinery and of a soil pile creates downward pressure on soil. And when parked too close to the edge of a trench, it’s possible to cause a soil condition known as “heavying and squeezing.” When this happens you’ll see a bulge at the bottom of a trench, which will then crack indicating that a cave-in is close at hand.

How Next-Gen GPS Can Help? 

Great geofencing software should allow a manager to easily set a geofence perimeter around the entire trench edge to prevent heavy machinery from parking too close. When any vehicle passes this geofence, both the operator and the manager will receive an alert.

3. Preventing “Struck By” or “Run Over By” Accidents with Heavy Machinery

What’s the Problem? 

Like any other jobsite, workers are constantly in danger of getting hit or run over by heavy machinery. This problem is amplified when visibility is poor (late night jobs, fog, etc). 

How Next-Gen GPS Can Help? 

A great hardware and software solution would be if workers get an audio, visual, and haptic alert from their GPS-enabled wearable anytime they are within an arms reach (0.5 meters) of getting struck by heavy machinery. The software should also allow managers to set distance sensitivity, send them a report of near misses, and future software on the machine may even stop the machine before hitting the worker. The operator of the heavy machinery would also receive an alert when they’re close to hitting a worker, and a radar-like application could sit on a tablet or mobile phone that gives a bird’s eye view of all activity on a jobsite, allowing for robust safety reporting and planning. 

4. Preventing “Falling Load" Injuries from Excavators

What’s the problem? 

One of the most common accidents on trenching & excavation sites happens when workers are struck by overhead, falling objects. This tends to happen when workers work under suspended or raised loads. 

How Next-Gen GPS Can Help? 

By creating a dynamic geofence that is attached to the excavator bucket and each worker, workers and management will receive an alert anytime work is done near a suspended bucket (see image above).

5. Preventing Electrocution and Other Utility Line Accidents

What’s the Problem?

Sometimes excavators accidentally hit power lines or pipes during a dig, even when the location of these utilities is known by the team. When this happens, in addition to causing expensive damage to municipal infrastructure, workers risk getting electrocuted or being exposed to natural gases – both of which can be lethal. 

How Next-Gen GPS Can Help? 

Just like Caterpillar’s use of built-in GPS sensors to control the precise depth of the dig, a GPS wearable can be added to the excavator bucket to determine the depth and stop the arm when it is in danger of hitting a utility line. Best of all, if your GPS receiver isn’t built-in the heavy equipment, you can switch it out for different vehicles on the jobsite.

Conclusion 

GPS seems to be an important technology for the future of work in the construction industry. Not only does it help companies like Human Condition, Caterpillar, and Triax Technology improve worker productivity, but it can also be used to increase worker’s spatial awareness, which is an idea supported by many researchers. This idea is further supported by recent advances in GPS wearable technology which makes it more accurate and cheaper.

GPS seems to be an important technology for the future of work in the construction industry. Not only does it help companies like Human Condition, Caterpillar, and Triax Technology improve worker productivity, but it can also be used to increase worker’s spatial awareness, which is an idea supported by many researchers. This idea is further supported by recent advances in GPS wearable technology which makes it more accurate and cheaper.

Although there is no product on the market today that exactly resembles how researchers suggest using GPS technology in the industry, we’re excited about the possibility. Trenching & excavation is one of the most dangerous jobs you could do on a construction site, and these new advances will hopefully make an impact in 2020.

——-

ABOUT AUTHOR:

My name is Cleo Kirkland, the VP of Business Development for Zonetap. I’m new to Environmental Health & Safety, but as someone who’s worked in tech most of my career, I’m excited to see how geofencing can shape the industry.

ABOUT ZONETAP

Zonetap is a producer of geofencing software and custom hardware solutions. We are currently piloting our geofencing software + wearable solution with a major manufacturer, and we’d love to share the results with you or have your company join our next pilot. If you’re interested in learning more about our technology or about our pilot program, please email cleo.kirkland@zonetap.com with subject line “Safety 1st Pilot."