How one US contractor used tech to combat Covid-19

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the USA, nationwide contractor Boldt Company set up a task force to investigate how technology could help the business overcome the challenges to its operations.

With 14 offices around the country and dozens of projects, it sought to circumvent its own hierarchy to find and implement systems quickly so it could keep building without endangering workers’ lives.

By the end of June, it had ditched a cumbersome, paper-based, health self-assessment system in favour of a smartphone app. It had also rolled out an automated image-capture system so that far-flung design and supervisory professionals could resume oversight of complex projects without travelling to site.

"We needed a structure that could deal with a cycle time that was faster than a hierarchical decision tree," according to Will Lichtig, Boldt’s executive vice president of performance & innovation.

He was charged with establishing a task force that would tap the knowledge of a wide base of people in the company and implement solutions.

From digital to paper

In the early days of covid-19, Boldt started by requiring everyone entering a site – workers, clients, and subcontractors – to fill out a paper health assessment form.

Inevitably, the paper started piling up. Dan Wagner, a Boldt superintendent in California, said he was juggling 150 pieces of paper a day and trying to do it while working remotely. "A paper form requires someone to touch it, put it in a bin, and keep as a record," Wagner said.

"The very nature of the process was counter to achieving a seamless process that didn’t spread the virus."

Wagner flagged up the issue and within a fortnight the company’s IT unit had moved the system onto smartphones at Wagner’s site.

Now workers and visitors scan a QR code that takes them to an online health survey. If any answers indicate a risk of spreading Covid-19, the user is denied access to the site and the survey is referred up the line.

The online assessment is used in conjunction with temperature screenings at site entrances.

"The system notifies us in seconds," said Wagner. "It makes our safety managers’ lives so much easier because they can manage information and get the reports while working remotely."

The system is now used around the country.

Virtual access to projects

Boldt’s home state of Wisconsin was the site of a second pain-induced innovation as a result of stay-at-home orders.

The company was in the final stages of building a six-storey hospital building at Children’s Wisconsin, with around 225 people on site. Because construction was considered an essential industry, crews kept reporting to site, but support services, construction management and owners’ facilities executives were staying home.

"Our architects in Chicago weren’t coming up, and much of our project team was working remotely," said Boldt project manager Scot Lauwasser. "We started tying up our resources with video conferences and having a hard time sending site photos to all parties."

He proposed that Boldt use OpenSpace, a 360-degree camera mounted on a hard hat that takes photos every half-second as the wearer walks through a construction site. The images are automatically uploaded to a website and map directly onto site plans, floor plan layouts, and BIM models of the project.

"It’s sort of like Google street view for construction projects," Lauwasser said. "We walk the job site once or twice a week," Lauwasser said. "Customers and construction partners can log in at any time and immediately see the progress of the job based on the timeline."

Future projects now

The Boldt task force is probing other ways to make company offices safe.

One idea is to combine thermal temperature cameras with facial recognition, with the system linked to each building’s security system, so that staff who pass the temperature scan can be automatically admitted into the building in one scan.

"Handheld thermometers aren’t always accurate, and they require a person be within 6ft of the individual," said Dave Much, Boldt’s director of emerging technologies.

This system is currently being tested at the firm’s headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin.

"The pandemic has been a catalyst for forcing change via technology," added Much.

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