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Laing O'Rourke monitors workers' safety with a smart hardhat

The construction company is piloting a smart hardhat that feeds data onto an analytics dashboard to help the company proactively respond to health and safety issues in the field.

For the last two years, Laing O'Rourke's Engineering Excellence Group has been developing a smart hardhat in the hope of being more proactive, rather than reactive, to wearer health and safety conditions.

Speaking at Microsoft Ignite Australia 2015, Rod Shepherd, Laing O'Rourke device engineering leader, explained that the company has been piloting a smart hardhat, which it hopes to bring to the market next year.

"We pride ourselves on safety and it's absolutely paramount to us to see everyone go home safely, and that's really our mantra and core belief. The nature in the way we do this and operate is in extreme temperatures," he said.

"The nature of the business is that we have very stringent health and safety in the way we manage our crew on-site and we want to improve on that."

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Laing O'Rourke's prototype smart hardhat (Image: Remco Jansen)

The prototype hardhat has been integrated with a sweatband sensory array, a GPS tracker, an accelerometer for the determination of orientation, and a data collection unit, which can be retrofitted to an existing hardhat. It has been designed to monitor the temperature and heart-rate of the wearer working in difficult climatic environments, plus the external temperature and humidity.

There is also a vibrating and sound alert system to provide warning to the wearer, based on all the data that is collected and transmitted via a lower-power Zigbee radio to a central geteway for storage. The central gateway is equipped with a 3G M2M industrial router allowing for remote access to all data collected and can also be used to generate alerts by SMS and email.

However, according to Shepherd, the way the data was initially being transmitted was not ideal as it relied too much on 3G, and subsequently the company was left with the manual analysis of large data logs.

As a result, Laing O'Rourke partnered with MOQdigital for its cloud data manager based on Microsoft's Azure IoT Suite to help streamline the data collection and analysis process. As part of this, MOQdigital designed a CPU stick that is plugged into the central gateway so that if any connectivity is lost in the field, the data could still be fetched when connectivity is up and running again.

Mick Badran, MOQdigital CTO, said the key idea behind this is to avoid the need to physically go onsite to collect any data.

When the data is transmitted, MOQdigital is able to view the information on a self-service dashboard whether the devices are online or offline, as well as details about the average pulse rate, and ambient temperature.

"We are trying to work out where fatigue is and how we can see fatigue. If the ambient temperature is staying relatively constant, but a user's temperature is fluctuating along with the heart rate reading, what does that tell us?" Badran said.

"This is all part of the next step of this pilot and going forward. The key is we've got the data into the analytic component of the solution and from there on in is a matter of working through that and seeing the trends."

Shepherd said as a result of the streamline process, data can now be widely shared with others in the business, whether that's shared via the app version of the dashboard or email, unlike previously when it could take up to two hours to produce a report.

He added that an example of how the company plans to use the smarthat and the collected data is to monitor the heat stress of wearers.

"We have a safety register where every incident gets reported, and some of those cases we had people who would start vomiting and were very unwell, and if you can pick various signs of that you might be able to get them into the shade, and you can intervene very quickly," he said.

Data is currently transmitted every five seconds, but in recognising that it could eventually become a "big data issue", Shepherd said there are plans to pull back the reporting to every half a minute.

Shepherd added he anticipates the company will revise the current design of the hardhat to make it more durable.

"We've had some fairly hard reviews [from wearers] including 'this looks like it will break off', and we have to think is it comfortable, is it actually wearable. We're going to do a hardware revision," he said.

"The other criticism onsite is we're using the utility slot on the side, so they usually need that slot for ear defenders, and some of the guys we want to monitor will be welding so they say: 'You can't have the module strapped there'. We have to reconsider it, and that's the process we're going through now."