Drones are being employed more and more frequently in the commercial sector. In fact, employers in all 50 states use drones for over 40 types of applications. Aerial photography is by far the most common role for drones, where they save time and money for businesses involved in construction, infrastructure maintenance, emergency management, and mining. With this ever-expanding list of uses for drones in the workplace, OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has taken notice.
OSHA’s data from 2016 suggests construction is the most dangerous field for workers, with 991 deaths reported in the industry for that year. The majority of those fatalities were the result of falling. With the exception of traffic accidents, working on buildings, towers, and other tall structures create the most dangerous conditions an employee can have. This is where drones are most helpful; they have the ability to replace workers in many of the difficult-to-reach places that require inspection and maintenance which put workers at risk.
OSHA recognizes the roof of a structure as the most difficult and dangerous part of a building for inspectors to access. This type of work usually requires climbing on ladders or scaffolding that are not always placed on level ground. Often times, the roof of the structure itself may be in poor condition, leading to other hazards from loose tiles and exposed skylights. Sudden gusts of wind or other poor weather can increase the likelihood of an accident. The roof may even collapse from the weight of an inspector if it is badly damaged or poorly maintained. All of this can be avoided with the use of a drone, making inspections much safer. A camera attached to a drone can relay video, not only to the pilot on the ground, but to anyone in the organization. This improves transparency and ultimately improves safety for everyone involved. OSHA sees the benefit of this new technology because it mitigates the need to put workers in areas where the danger of falling from heights is high. Traditionally, many of these risky jobs have been done by hand.
The next most treacherous job that contributes to casualties from falling in a construction site is climbing walls. Visual inspection is a vital component of safety, and for many projects, it is necessary to erect scaffolding in order to carry out inspections and repairs. Falls from scaffolding, however, are responsible for dozens of deaths per year. The most prominent inspections that can easily be replaced by drones are of flashing and windows. Other, more high-tech applications are being developed to address more complex inspections. In the case of an unstable or crumbling structures, for example, drones can create detailed 3D models and combine them with high resolution images to help create the safest plan of action for repairs and restoration to the structure. These drone can reach locations that are unsafe for inspectors to walk on and that would otherwise be inaccessible without a manned helicopter. The improved safety and savings for these types of applications are massive.
Lastly, on most job sites the scaffolding itself needs to be carefully inspected to ensure it is structurally sound and properly secured. Using a drone, inspections are easy and can ensure that all the proper fastenings and boards are installed and secured properly without the need for sending an employee into harm’s way.
These are just a few of the examples where drones can be used to carry out inspections in a much safer and more affordable way than traditional methods offer. This is helping to improve safety on job sites by improving efficiency and increasing the frequency at which inspections can be conducted. Overall, this will continue to make construction sites and the structures they are building and maintaining safer.
Looking to the future, OSHA is supporting growing industries and recognizes the areas where drones can replace the need for direct human visual inspection. Drones are continuing to evolve and can be outfitted with myriad combinations of sensors. Already, drones outperform their human counterparts by utilizing thermal imaging. This type of sensor can identify dangerous hot spots in an electrical system, for example, where the naked eye cannot, preventing electrical fires.
Although drones carry their own set of safety risks, OSHA and the business community recognize that the potential to improve safety by keeping employees out of harm’s way exceeds the risk of deploying a drone in most situations.