Minimizing Disruption and Maximizing Safety in Healthcare Construction

By Ian Ouellette

With an increasingly aging population, changing patient needs, and pressure to update their institutions to remain competitive, construction at healthcare facilities is on the rise. In 2018, for example, there were about a dozen construction projects that cost $1 billion or more at hospitals, medical centers and other healthcare facilities, according to an industry article. And, while renovations and other projects are underway, facility managers face the daunting challenge of ensuring the safety and welfare of all constituents and minimizing disruption.

A challenging construction environment

While undergoing construction projects in occupied buildings always poses issues, it is compounded when dealing with a vulnerable population that has compromised health and immune systems. Typical concerns become even more critical in this environment, including minimizing the noise, dust, dirt and other byproducts of construction, and ensuring that construction crews are not using chemicals or other substances that could be potentially harmful to the patient population. Additionally, contractors need to be vigilant about infection control and ensuring that all hospital or healthcare areas remain sanitary. 

In addition to these concerns there are safety issues as well. The many tradesmen coming and going at various times and equipment and tools spread across the jobsite can create a confusing and disruptive environment. And the infrastructure might change daily, along with changing work zones and public pathways.

And, at all times healthcare facility managers are focused on ensuring the safety of patients, the public and the workers themselves. Traditionally, safety personnel conduct checks by walking around the worksite, which does not provide the immediacy that is needed in emergencies. If a worker falls or another incident occurs, there is often a lag time between when the incident occurs and when safety personnel are notified – which can be longer if a worker is working alone or in an isolated area. Because every second counts when there is an emergency, it’s critical that safety personnel can be aware of and respond to incidents quickly.

Similarly, when there is an emergency evacuation, construction managers typically blow airhorns to notify workers and hope that these can be heard wherever on the site they are located, over the noise of drills and other loud equipment. Unfortunately, with these manual methods there is no quick way to know where anyone is located or to quickly know if everyone has made it to the muster point.

Another key safety concern that facility managers need to consider is controlling access to construction sites. They need to be sure that only authorized workers are entering the worksite – those with proper credentials and certifications – and that they are only in the areas where they are permitted to go. Conversely, it’s important for safety reasons that the public does not inadvertently wander into dangerous construction areas.

Best practices for safe, successful projects

There are several key approaches and technologies facility managers are turning to in order to address these unique construction concerns of hospitals and other healthcare institutions:

  • Involve all constituents. From the start, it’s important that all stakeholders – from management, finance, operations, physicians, nursing and other departments – are involved in the planning stages, so the new construction can address the needs of all constituents. To make sure that architects, project teams, facility managers, hospital management and others are all on the same page, many facilities are using Building Information Modeling (BIM) systems. These tools enable stakeholders to see virtual representations of the designs and “walk through” the new addition or building, enabling them to potentially avoid design issues and helping to ensure that the project accomplishes the intended objectives.
  • Maintain a sanitary environment. Preparations to ensure adequate infection control and a sanitary healthcare environment must be addressed right from the outset and throughout the entire construction process. Some sites are using sensors to monitor environmental conditions during the construction process in real time.
  • Putting safety measures in place. Safety measures are critical, including ensuring that all workers have the proper safety certification, and conducting ongoing training and on-site drills.  Forward-thinking contractors are implementing Internet of Things (IoT) wearable sensors to monitor where workers are on the construction site. Being able to locate workers is important during emergency evacuations, enabling safety personnel and rescue teams to know if anyone is has remained on the site, and if so, where the worker is. In addition to providing information on the location of workers, these devices will alert safety personnel in real-time if a worker falls, so help can be dispatched immediately, and also allow workers to communicate any hazards or safety concerns directly to safety personnel.  Some wearables are integrated with sensors on equipment to ensure that only workers certified to handle potentially dangerous machines are using them.
  • Restricting and monitoring access. Wearable devices – which carry identifying information on the workers, including their credentials and certifications — can also be integrated with an access control system, so this key information can be verified before workers enter the site. Special sensors can be placed on sensitive areas of interest inside the healthcare facility, but outside the construction zone, to ensure that workers don’t access those areas.
  • Finishing up project quickly. To minimize disruption and get operations back on track quickly, contractors are turning to productivity tools, such as project management and collaboration software. In addition, by monitoring how many tradesmen are on site, where they are located, and using historical data captured by the wearable sensors on how long it took for different parts of the project to be completed, contractors can improve operations and productivity.  It’s helpful for all productivity tools to be integrated so the data gathered from one tool can be shared with another.

To accommodate changing patient populations and growing healthcare needs, construction projects in hospitals and other healthcare facilities will continue at a healthy clip. Despite the inherent challenges of construction projects – and the safety issues and disruption that come along with it – there is much that facility managers can do to implement safer and smoother projects. By following best practices and using innovative technologies, healthcare facilities can be well on their way to developing better, more responsive institutions that meet the needs of the community for many years ahead.

Ian Ouellette is VP of Product at Triax Technologies, a leading provider of technology for the connected jobsite.

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