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March 10, 2020
Safety, Emerging technology, Virtual construction & technology

About 15 years ago we changed the way we look at safety on our jobsites, from measuring events after they happened to measuring predictive indicators - the environment and situations that encourage negative behaviors. The goal was to take corrective action before a safety event would occur. Through this approach, we saw the number and severity of safety incidents on our projects decline. Others in our industry took note and followed our example.


We could not have made this switch without incorporating technology into the solution. At the same time that we shifted our mindset, we transitioned our audit process from paper to electronic format. Not only was it more efficient, it opened the door to a new world of data and the ability to identify trends - and share them more broadly with those in the field in a timely manner.

Sadly, our industry still has a ways to go, with construction claiming 20% of work related fatalities. Our goal is to eliminate these incidents, and that's why we continue to seek out emerging technologies as a means to creating safer environments for our workforce.

At Pepper, we've seen and tested several new concepts that help move the needle. Though the benefits are worth exploring, it will be a while before their impact will be felt across all our jobsites.

  • Prefabrication places activities in a safer environment. But the reality is that construction still requires on-site work. And prefabrication is not the practical or financially beneficial answer for every job.
  • There continues to be a buzz around wearables, but to really impact our safety stats, it has to be affordable and available to the masses. It will be a while before we'll be wearing smart helmets.
  • Safety apps make information readily accessible and provide real-time alerts. We use one at Pepper. But its use tends to be more reactive than preventative.
Prefabrication shop
Prefabrication provides a safer environment, but it is not the answer for all work on all jobsites.

As the industry finds ways to apply the above solutions more broadly, BIM has made two innovative construction safety products available to all our jobsites, which means they have the biggest potential to impact safety today. We consider them game changers.

Virtual Reality safety training - Our workforce tends to be visual, hands-on learners, but traditional training is largely based on a classroom type atmosphere. The two styles don’t match and often result in a learning gap. So we researched what we thought was the future of safety training: virtual reality.  A virtual environment is the closest we can come to physically being on a jobsite while also addressing our most common safety hazards. 

At the beginning of our search, we didn’t find a specific solution that met our needs. Commercially-available options were either not cost effective or too generic. Instead, we tapped our own in-house expertise to build a training program. The process was straight-forward and based on our own safety data:

  1. We decided to limit the focus of the training to a single scope of work to make it specific enough to be effective. We chose our vertical concrete operation. 
  2. Then, we analyzed previous incident and hazard data and developed the content of the training to address the most frequent safety exposures on our jobsites.
  3. Our Technical Services/BIM team worked closely with our field supervisors to make the concept relevant to our teams. 
  4. The images were created from 3D scans of our concrete crew work spaces to make the graphics realistic and recognizable.


The new training is shown to new tradespeople to communicate the conditions and hazards they will experience shortly after safety orientation. So when they arrive on site, it’s almost like they have been there before. The VR module allows for increased interaction between our safety representative and our new tradespeople.

Underground Utilities Damage Prevention program - Our Underground Utility Damage Prevention program combines field operations with 3D modeling. In the past, we located utilities and would mark them on the surface or insert sight tubes so the locations of the utilities would remain throughout the project. However, there remained too many unknown variables, which left room for human error. With our UUDP plan, we are able to create a 3D model of all underground utilities on the jobsite before machine digging. This deliverable is then provided to each contractor in advance of their on-site operations. An underground model also allows us to add as-built information and turn over a current and accurate deliverable to the client that they can use on all future projects.

Pepper's UUDP plan facilitates a safer working environment by building a 3D model of all underground utilities so workers see what's below them before digging.

What's next with safety?

At Pepper, we believe AI offers the next breakthrough technology and are actively exploring opportunities to use it for safety purposes. We are very close to applying it on some of our projects in a very practical and effective way. Stay tuned to learn more.

Until we are able to completely remove the dangers from our jobsites, technology will play a critical role in progressing our industry toward zero incidents. But the decision to be safe is still a personal one. That's why as we evaluate a program's effectiveness, it's important that the safety tools and measures we use apply to each person on our projects.

About the Authors

Daniel Ruane

Daniel Ruane, CSP, CHSTVice President of Safety, Illinois and Wisconsin

Dan has 19 years of experience as a safety professional in the construction industry. In his role as vice president of safety, Dan is responsible for planning, implementation and maintenance of Pepper's safety training programs. He is involved in pre-planning of projects to ensure all safety and health concerns are addressed and conducts regular project safety audits.

Dan is actively involved in promoting safety in the industry. He serves as chairman of the Builders Association (AGC Chicago Branch) Safety and Health Committee and is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). He speaks at several events throughout the year including quarterly forums and the spring summit/safety awards ceremony. Dan holds a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety and Health from Illinois State University, and he is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and Construction Health and Safety Technician (CHST).


Jennifer Suerth, LEED® APSenior Vice President of Virtual Construction, MEP and Operations Technology

As senior vice president of virtual construction, Jen provides strategic direction for the company with regard to BIM, laser scanning, augmented reality, MEP and other technical services specialties. She serves as a key advisor to project teams on constructability and implementation strategies throughout the early stages of project design and development, as well as providing leadership on construction, fabrication and facility management and operations technology.

Jen has more than 12 years of experience in architecture, engineering and construction. She is a leader in the Chicago virtual construction community, speaking frequently and running workshops educating others on BIM. She has been recognized among 2016 Women in Construction by Constructech Magazine, Chicago Building Congress Future Leaders and ENR Midwest’s Top 20 Under 40. Jen holds a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies and a Master of Architecture, Structures, both from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Read more about Jen.