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New tech offers health and safety opportunities

Whether detecting clashes, safely moving cranes or highlighting accident blackspots, BIM can lay a huge rule in providing safer sites.

BIM is usually referenced in terms of the time and money it can save on a project, but it can also be used as a tool to improve site safety.

Stefan Mordue, architect and technical author for NBS, which runs the national BIM library, says many health and safety professionals do not understand the full relevance of the technology to them.

Co-author of BIM for Construction Health and Safety, he says these professionals often have less exposure to the software because they tend to be recipients or reviewers of the models, rather than creators of them.

Instead of seeing BIM as just being about efficiency in the design, construction and maintenance of a project, Mr Mordue argues the industry should view it as a tool to make projects safer.

Safety gains of clash detection

Where designers look for clashes in the positioning of objects that would make the project problematic to build, health and safety professionals can look for safety clashes too, such as areas of a site that area potentially unsafe.

“We need to think of health and safety clash detection, such as for vehicle movements on site”

Stefan Mordue, NBS

“A lot of construction fatalities and injuries are falls from height and collisions with things,” Mr Mordue says.

“We need to think of [health and safety] clash detection, such as for vehicle movements on site. For example, if there is a school nearby we do not want a lorry appearing at 3pm when the kids are coming onto the street.”

His book cites several instances of how BIM can be used to improve safety.

Most of these show how it can help contractors and architects find and remove hazards when planning a scheme, or how BIM can be used to highlight unavoidable dangers before people go on site.

The majority of this work was previously possible using 2D drawings, but showing it in a 3D model can make it easier to understand for people who are inexperienced in reading plans.

Modelling crane movements

A number of projects have used BIM to check for dangers caused by crane and vehicle movements. 

This includes a BIM-based safety management system designed by the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland that modelled crane movements in both space and time to work out lifting patterns and crash zones should there be a collapse.

Contractors Atkins, Costain and Galliford Try also modelled a crane’s path through a Liverpool waste treatment works site to see whether it could move through the area safely.

“If you put an exclamation mark in a plan it will not show up in elevation, but in [the properties of] an object it shows up everywhere”

Stefan Mordue, NBS

BIM models can help contractors and architects brief construction workers about hazards that cannot be removed.

Illustrating the point, consultant Arup added colour-coded exclamation marks to a model with a note about each hazard in the properties of the object.

The information could be seen in multiple views and be overlaid on a 3D model.

Traditionally, hazards would be annotated on drawings and added to a risk register, but an advantage of BIM is that the warning will show up in all views of the model.

“If you put an exclamation mark in a plan it will not show up in elevation, but in [the properties of] an object it shows up everywhere,” Mr Mordue explains.

BIM models can also be used in safety briefings.

“There are sites where they get information from the model and put it onto an LCD screen in the site cabin,” he continues.

“It gives information about blackspots to avoid. In construction there are lots of languages spoken, so to convey the information visually is very beneficial.”

Simulating health and safety

Taking the technology a step further, Coventry University has a virtual reality simulator and can use models of real projects to simulate scenarios in a safe environment (pictured).

It is possible to set up BIM software to make automated checklists to test that aspects of the building conform to rules and regulations, which might see it checking that a rooflight always has protection around it.

However, these are just tools; there will always be a need for professional judgement, including in risk assessment and in setting up and interpreting the results of automated checks.

As Mr Mordue points out, BIM itself can’t rectify poor design.

Ultimately, he says, BIM could be an opportunity for health and safety staff to “enhance their reputations and embed their role in the construction process”.

It may also inherently encourage greater integration between health and safety advisers and other construction professionals, as it fundamentally requires collaboration.

But whether these things happen will ultimately be down to the attitude that contractors, designers and clients bring to bear on health and safety.

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