The construction industry is one of the most dangerous for workers, with the highest number of deaths of any industry in the United States, according to OSHA. Around 20% - one in every five - of all worker deaths are in the construction industry. For this reason, construction safety is always the number one priority for any contractor on all job sites.
A majority of worker deaths are caused by what are known as the “Fatal Four:” falls, struck-by-object, electrocutions, and caught-in/between. These “fatal four” regularly account for around 60% of all on-site deaths. Eliminating the fatal four would save just under 600 lives every year.
All accidents are preventable, and every opportunity to improve site safety is welcomed. One solution to vastly improving the safety of job sites lies in an area gaining a lot of attention for its range of benefits: prefabrication and modular construction technology.
What is Prefabrication and Modular Construction Technology?
Prefabrication, modular construction, and offsite construction are all terms often used interchangeably, but which have subtle differences. All three are aspects of the industrialization of construction, where techniques from manufacturing are being utilized to improve the construction process.
Prefabrication is the act of making building or building components in a more controlled environment. It can be defined as “a manufacturing process, generally taking place at a specialized facility, in which various materials are joined to form a component part of a final installation.” It typically involves a single trade, such as electrical, piping, or rebar. Once complete the components are transported to the building site for assembly.
Offsite construction is a closely related but is a little more general. It refers to the broad aspect of planning, design, fabrication, and assembly of building elements in a location other than the final building site. However, it doesn’t specify how the components produced will come together. So when thinking about the difference of offsite construction vs. prefabrication, offsite is the where and prefabrication is how.
Modularization is often mixed up with prefabrication. It's similar in regards to the process of building a structure in a factory before assembling it on the jobsite. However, the difference is modularization refers to the preconstruction of a complete system. These modules are large box-like structures which, when assembled on site, make up an entire structure.
The Top 5 Construction Safety Benefits of Prefabrication
Prefabrication has been praised for a variety of benefits, such as higher quality outcomes, cost savings, time savings, better site security, less environmental impact, and mitigating labor shortage issues. However, it’s also a great improvement for site safety. So just how does prefabrication benefit site safety? Here are 5 major benefits for site safety from prefabrication.
#1. Controlled Environment
Construction sites are chaotic environments, always changing, evolving, and subject to environmental conditions. Prefabrication puts worker into a controlled environment, where many of the risks of traditional construction sites can be avoided. For one, offsite construction virtually eliminates risk from weather conditions. There are no slippery surfaces from rain or snow, cutting down on slips and falls, or exposed electrical lines to moisture, avoiding risk of electrocution.
The shop setting also means proper tools and machinery are easily accessible in a safer environment. The factory-like method of offsite construction promotes higher safety standards and reduces the risks caused by working in unfamiliar surroundings. Workers have adequate space to perform their jobs, and easy access to the proper tools and machinery in a safer environment. There is also less exposure to construction vehicles moving in tight workspaces, which can lead to struck-bys and caught-betweens.
Prefab and modular construction technology means less exposure to construction vehicles moving in tight workspaces
#2. Less Waste and Clutter
The conditions of a construction site dictate how sites are laid out, and in dense urban areas, options are limited. By removing material off the jobsite, offsite construction enables a better material flow for the entire project. Less materials stored on-site reduces clutter and debris, leading to a cleaner, more organized, and safer project site.
Less materials stored on-site reduces clutter and debris, leading to a cleaner, more organized, and safer project site.
#3. Less Onsite Workers
As a matter of simple math, less workers onsite means less workers who can potentially be injured, killed, or otherwise involved in a safety incident. By minimizing workers on-site, you minimize the potential opportunities for something to go wrong. The workers who do install prefabricated pieces tend to be the most experienced, allowing sites to leverage the expertise of knowledgeable workers while minimizing the need for workers with less training in proper safety procedures. Less trade workers onsite also means a less crowded jobsite, and less potential for workers to run into issues due to a lack of space or crowded working environment.
By minimizing workers on-site, you minimize the potential opportunities for something to go wrong
#4. Minimize Heights and Risky Site Elements
Offsite allows for the reduction of risky site elements such as scaffolding, and of working at heights in general. With falls as the #1 killer of the Fatal Four, maximizing the work done at ground level can have a big impact. Approximately 65% of all construction workers perform work on scaffolds, exposing workers to the risk of falls, electrocutions, and falling objects.
With offsite construction, permanent scaffolding is used, which is safer and presents less opportunities for error than the frequently assembled and reassembled scaffolding used on traditional sites. More work is performed at the ground level and the need for working at heights is reduced in general.
Prefabrication means that work is performed at the ground level and the need for working at heights is reduced in general
#5. Safer Scheduling
Offsite construction also allows for safer installation practices and better planned installation schedules, minimizing the need for rushed work or crowded workspaces. Trade stacking, where multiple trades are working in the same area, can be avoided altogether, all while keeping a fast project pace.
Offsite construction allows for better planned installation schedules, minimizing the need for rushed work or crowded workspaces
Saving Costs, Saving Lives
Thanks to the growth of technologies such as BIM and enhanced digital construction data and the adoption of techniques such as lean construction, prefabrication is becoming easier to implement. Contractors are embracing prefabrication at a growing pace to lower costs and streamline construction processes.
While all of the many benefits of prefabrication are exciting, the possibility to save lives, not just dollars, is truly valuable. With the high human cost of safety issues in the construction industry, improved site safety is the greatest savings you can achieve.