Exosuits give industry workers a taste of superhero strength

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

We live in a world where gadgets and technology make our lives easier daily and with wearable technology comes the added promise of increased worker safety and productivity.

Wearable technology is defined as any accessory or piece of clothing incorporating electronic and computer technology. As the industry gets more familiar with technology, digital solutions are being used in all areas of the industry, we’re moving away from paper trails and manual building and towards online solutions, new technology, apps and robots that can do the job for us. Some fear robots will take over and the need for humans in the industry will dwindle, but I think we need to fear technology less and accept it’s going to improve our working life, making once difficult jobs much easier to complete.

Construction workers could soon have a taste of a superhero’s strength, thanks to a robotic vest that is designed to prevent injuries on building sites. Willmott Dixon are the first in the UK to trial the EksoVest, an upper body exoskeleton vest that supports a worker’s arms during heavy lifting using various adjustable springs that transfer the weight of a load. The EksoVest is a spring-loaded exoskeleton for the upper body that makes heavy items feel weightless during lifting, by taking the strain that traditionally would hit the shoulders hard. The power suit will allow workers to spend long days lifting materials and holding tools at awkward angles without the physical stresses usually associated with such tasks. It should lead to teams on site feeling less exerted and improve wellbeing and productivity. For many companies it will overcome the problem of workers’ bodies being gradually broken down over a 20-25-year period, which can result in early retirement or the need to move into other job roles to avoid further injuries or surgery.

The vest costs approximately £5,650, which is a lot of money. However, there are currently more than 100,000 injuries on site each year, which, on top of being painful or life threatening, costs the industry thousands of pounds each year. If the EksoVest can cut a fraction of that, it will be worthwhile in my opinion.

Working on a construction site can easily take its toll on the human body. Tasks can be strenuous, repetitive, high-impact and it shows. Productivity, and workers’ wellbeing and longevity are affected. Wearable technology is now there to lend a helping hand – literally. By the end of this year, a full-body robotically-powered suit is also in the works with Ekso. The kit would allow workers to lift significant weights as they freely move around site without the need for specialist vehicles – Tony Stark, eat your heart out.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

Architecture and Wellbeing

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Monday of this week (January 21) has been dubbed ‘the most depressing day of the year’. Blue Monday falls on the third Monday of January and is the perfect opportunity to raise the issue of mental wellbeing in the industry.

Construction workers are particularly vulnerable to feeling down after Christmas, long, dark and cold days certainly take their toll. The mental health and wellbeing of workers are a high priority, especially recently, with a number of initiatives in place and organisations starting to take it more seriously.

As an industry responsible for the construction of buildings and offices, we can also make a change and improve the working environments for others.  Almost three-quarters (74%) of UK employees believe that their work environment supports their physical wellbeing. While this is a very encouraging statistic, it still means that more than one in four UK office workers suffer in unhealthy environments. The Wellbeing at Work Study paid particular attention to the concerns of those who are unhappy with their workplace to reveal the biggest pitfalls to avoid.

From a design point of view, over a quarter of UK employees find the acoustics of their office unpleasant & three-quarters of those blamed it on a noisy open plan environment. A further quarter (27%) are frustrated by a lack of privacy. Of the quarter who state their office does not encourage them to move around, three-quarters (72%) blame the awkward design of their workplace. A lot of the complaints regarding office design came from lack of colour (80%) and greenery (64%).

The results show the impact that small changes can have on employee wellbeing and the boost that can be received from a splash of colour or the introduction of some greenery. However, design considerations now go way beyond aesthetics and the understanding of what makes a healthy architecture has changed radically. What used to be about hygiene and health is now more about psychological wellbeing. I don’t think there’s a question of whether architecture affects our health and wellbeing, it’s more about how much it does.

We have all heard the statistics: one in four people will suffer from mental health problems. However, the reality is that everyone will at some point see their mental health take a dip, so it would be more accurate to say that everybody at some point will suffer from mental health problems. Ignoring this fact can lead to high turnover of staff, loss of expertise, a demotivated workforce and more severe cases. If we can make somebody’s life easier, whether that’s support in work, the décor of an office or the design of the building, then why wouldn’t we? We’re the only industry that can have an impact on the design of the building, so I think we need to take our role and responsibility seriously.

 

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk

Are we doing all that we can to get children to consider a career in the industry after school?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

As an industry we’ve struggled to appeal to the younger generation and increase the number of children considering construction as a career when they leave school. We have been working to challenge perceptions that the industry is a male dominated, old fashioned, dirty industry, which is a good place to start.

Over Christmas, the LEGO Movie was released in cinemas which featured a construction worker as the main character who is guided by a diverse band of ‘master builders’ that literally use their construction skills to build their way past every challenge. The film was so popular, grossing half a billion worldwide and LEGO struggled to keep up with demand for its toys after the film’s release. Great news for film makers and a positive step getting children to put down tablets and pick up building blocks (like the good old days!) but is it enough to get them to want to work in the industry? Sadly, I think not.

For years we’ve had the likes of Bob the Builder, Minecraft and the first LEGO Movie showcasing our industry but that still doesn’t seem to be working. Even newer TV shows are trying but they still aren’t getting it quite right. Paw Patrol, a very popular children’s cartoon about a group of rescue dogs who work together to protect the community. Each dog has a different job ranging from a fireman and paramedic to recycling and Rubble is the construction dog. While it’s great he’s flying the flag for the industry, he’s also male and an English Bulldog, one of the most muscular breeds, which certainly isn’t a requirement to work in the industry.

Whatever makes children swap building blocks for bricks and mortar in the future is going to be more than a popular film at the cinema. We all watched Mary Poppins as well but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to start hiring magical nannies, as nice as that would be. We need to crack our marketing and work on our public perception, with people of all ages, not just children. The image people have in their head is not a true representation of how the industry is today. We’ve come a long way in terms of technology and skills, and the general public just aren’t aware of the reality of construction today. We need to get better at communicating the jobs available, informing parents/school career advisors and pupils that there are many professions within the industry; it’s certainly not just hard hats and muddy boots anymore. If we give them a true representation of what they can expect, and what the industry is like, then we’ve done all we can and it’s down to them to decide if construction is right for them.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

The Environmental Impact of Concrete

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in existence. It is second only to water as the most-consumed resource on the planet. But, while it may have shaped most of our built environment, it also has a huge carbon footprint.

According to Chatham House, cement is the source of about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. To put that into perspective, if the cement industry was a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world. It contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel and isn’t far behind the global agriculture business. Following this research, architects have been urged to reconsider their use of concrete given that the UK has set a 2050 target to reduce its carbon emissions to 80% less than it was in 1990, so we need to be doing everything we can.

It’s no surprise that cement is so widely used, it’s a remarkably good construction material. A mix of sand, gravel, a cement binder and water, concrete is widely embraced by architects, structural engineers, developers and builders. It’s affordable, which is always a bonus, and you can produce it almost anywhere. Perhaps it’s not about reducing how much cement we use but more looking into how it is produced. Research from Chatham House found that more than 50% of emissions are linked to the process for producing clinker, one of the main ingredients involved in the manufacture of cement. There are alternatives to cement such as the waste from steel production, although there is not a huge supply. Obviously, I don’t think we need to stop using it, but I do think the industry needs to take this into consideration and industry workers need to be more efficient when using it.

The IPCC’s latest report warned that the world has just 12 years left to moderate CO2 emissions and halt devastating global warming, so it’s not just a case of ‘trying’ to be green, it’s getting pretty serious and I certainly don’t want our industry to be the one of the main causes given everything we’ve been doing over the years to improve.

We recognise that we work in one of the biggest industries in the world, and because of what we do, we have potential to cause a lot of damage but that means we also have the most potential to make a difference on protecting the environment. Companies are always thinking of new innovative ways of being efficient and we’ve really stepped up our game in the last few years. Offsite construction is now becoming the norm, we’ve got PopUp Houses, plastic roads, even a ‘bubble’ building here in Newcastle, all of which are slowly making a difference.  While the aesthetics of a building are still important, we need to consider the materials we’re using and their wider impact – hopefully we’re all in agreement on that.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

What can we expect for 2019?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Happy New Year to you all – I hope you’ve all had a lovely Christmas break and are raring to get started. I cannot believe it’s 2019 and another new year is ahead of us, but I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 12 months have in store– I think it’s certainly going to be a busy one! While you can never predict exactly what the year ahead holds, there are a few things I expect to see, Brexit being the biggest change, but I won’t hold my breath on that.

Let’s start with a positive. The Construction Products Association (CPA) predict that output will accelerate in by 2.3% in 2019 and 1.9% 2020. House-building is forecast to be the primary driver of growth for the whole industry. In private housing, first-time buyer demand, enabled by the government’s Help to Buy scheme, continues to boost sentiment and encourage an increase in housebuilding activity outside London. There are ambitious housebuilding targets both in the public and private sectors. But luckily, we are seeing growing interest in offsite manufacture, digital and sustainable construction. Compared to other industries we’ve been slow to adapt to the digital age, but the smart building tech industry has grown significantly, and the pace of change is now inevitable.

For many years we’ve struggled with a skills shortage and with less people coming into the industry we’re now struggling with an ageing workforce. Organisations that can attract and retain a young workforce are likely to score well in bid processes, as they can provide some evidence on delivery capability. As budgets get tighter, clients are looking to added value within bids as a way of getting something extra. Monetising your added-value benefits is important to demonstrate the financial value and there can be other benefits too – social value, for example, which is obviously a really big deal. Certainly, things to think about going into the year.

The North East industry had a good 2018 with many of our projects/companies being recognised at the National Constructing Excellence Awards. Seven of our entries came away as winners or highly commended, it was a very good night for the North East, one I’m extremely proud of.

We’ve overcome some tough challenges in the last year alone and that only proves to me that this industry can achieve anything! The demise of Carillion resulted in a poor performance for the industry at the start of last year, which combined with the bad weather, was estimated to have lost UK construction £1bn in productivity, surely 2019 can get off to a better start.  So, let’s get our heads down and have a good year – bring it on 2019, we’re ready for you!

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.