Industry Insights – February 2022: Equality in Construction & the Future of How We Build

By Jen Heil | March 3, 2022

Welcome to the February 2022 edition of SG’s Industry Insights as construction growth hits a six-month high, but continued material shortages and inflation loom. In the runup to Women In Construction week beginning 6th March, and International Women’s Day on the 8th, we’re spotlighting issues which mean women’s PPE in construction still isn’t where it should be. We’re also looking to the future where digital twin technology could be the answer to many industry issues.

Spotlight on Women’s PPE and construction kits: essential to promoting equality and diversity within the industry.

When women enter a traditionally male-dominated field, their skills and expertise can often be hampered by the industry’s failure to adapt and provide equal opportunity and an open mindset. People who identify as women now make up 14% of the construction work force with more and more taking up roles on site,  challenging perceptions of manual labour being exclusively a man’s work. However, many women report not having well-fitting PPE to fulfil their roles effectively, instead having to wear men’s PPE. This reflects a clear lack of accessibility within the industry.

Well-fitting work clothes and PPE are essentials. In addition to hampering movement, oversized or ill-fitting clothes can lead to a number of problems including:

  • boots which leave room for water, dirt or sharp objects to get in;
  • hard hats which are loose and fail to provide proper protection;
  • masks which allow smoke or fumes to enter; and
  • increased risk that clothes can get trapped in machinery or get caught on protrusions.

Many women working onsite are only able to access a small men’s size PPE and must resort to tying hair ties around oversized gloves or wearing several pairs of socks to fit into big boots. In normal life, women struggle enough to find regular clothes to fit, with huge discrepancies in terms of size between certain brands. At work, this issue manifests itself in women being unable to find clothes that are safe and comfortable.

It is a legal requirement for employers to provide permanent workers with PPE, and in April this year laws are changing, bringing all temporary workers under this requirement. Whether employed on a permanent or a temporary basis, the responsibility lies with the employer to provide PPE, however there is little emphasis on ensuring it is inclusive in all industries.

While some manufacturers do have women’s PPE basics, they are not so widely available, even when it is an important part of making women feel welcome – and ensuring their safety – in the industry. Amidst a skills and labour shortage that has left many construction projects scrambling for workers, considering the needs of the potential workforce isn’t just about inclusivity, but is necessary for acknowledging how the construction industry needs to change and expand to combat this shortage of labour. With 37% of new entrants into the profession being women, there will be more necessity to provide inclusive PPE than ever before.

The issue with inadequate PPE is not exclusive to the construction industry; a 2017 TUC (Trades Union Congress) report showed there was a large ‘gender PPE gap’ across a range of sectors, from the NHS to rail services and the police force, with only 29% of females being provided with PPE that was purposely designed for women. From a constant inconvenience to a downright health hazard, pushing women into wearing men’s PPE says several things about the industry, but it also says to women; this industry does not value you. It’s time to change that.

Digital twin technology: building for the future

Digitalisation has come slowly to the construction industry but recognition of its usefulness and importance has increased significantly in recent years. With renewed focus on the sustainability, safety and performance of our built environment, digital twin technology is offering a crucial means for more effective building design and management.

A digital twin is a virtual representation of an object or system that spans its lifecycle. When construction has been commissioned, a digital twin can be continuously updated with operational and process data in real time. The digital model then uses simulation, machine learning and reasoning to inform decision making. This can help to identify potential faults and aid remote troubleshooting, ultimately improving building performance and occupant satisfaction by offering solutions to issues before they arise.

The construction sector is constantly facing a barrage of challenges: poor productivity, profitability and project performance, skilled labour shortages and sustainability concerns are heightened by a rapidly evolving legislative landscape and greater scrutiny of competency across the industry. Digital twin technology can alleviate many of the pain points caused by these challenges. The ability to create virtual replicas of potential and actual physical assets, as well as related processes, places, systems and devices, can support compliance, enable futureproofing and reduce the gap between the designed and actual performance of buildings. Drawing on real-time data within a central model also contributes to the golden-thread of information, which is now recognised as being vital for ensuring the safety and integrity of built assets.

There is a definite push towards this technology – the government is even backing the development of a national programme through its Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), with the intention of using shared information to “better understand, plan and predict the country’s infrastructure system”. However, the question remains whether the industry is prepared for this shift when other digital technologies, such as advanced BIM, still have limited take-up across the sector.

The most significant stumbling block to realising the full potential of digital twins seems to be around the integration of legacy systems – a common issue that arises with every new technological innovation. Solutions need to be developed that will allow digital twin technology to work with historic data and information collected through other methods, such as BIM. Overcoming this issue is vital for the continued forward momentum of the industry, and is going to require investment in skills training, both for new recruits and existing professionals.

Construction cannot afford to be left behind as we advance further into the digital age, and getting to grips with digital twin technology should be embraced as a means of both overcoming existing challenges and improving the overall performance and value of our built environment.

For more information on the benefits and opportunities presented by digital twin technology, have a read of The Institute of Engineering and Technology’s 2019 report: Digital Twins for the Built Environment.

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