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David Hunt is CEO of illeso, a 100% paperless health and safety compliance application for the construction industry. In this feature he explains why he believes construction firms using paper-based admin have two years to modernise the back office, or risk antiquation.

The ‘bricks and mortar’ construction industry is recognised as one of the least digitally developed industries in the UK, ahead of only agriculture. What is less clear is why. Construction companies deal in million-dollar projects, complex to create, critical to get right, and with massive legal responsibilities and oftentimes hairline profit margins. Every one of these factors could be significantly alleviated by digital assistance. With over 15 years’ experience working across every level in construction, I have seen first-hand how the reluctance to go digital is holding the industry back, and even more worryingly, actually risking workers’ lives through outdated practices.

Digital transformation is now years underway in most industries, bringing enormous efficiency benefits alongside. One pertinent example is the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), whose transformation began in 2011 and has proven so successful it is now imitated around the world. GDS centralised some two thousand government websites onto GOV.UK, eliminating duplicate content, reducing load time, and improving usability. These benefits were achieved at less than 30% of the annual cost of the sites they replaced, and GDS now serves 14 million users weekly, and more than a billion transactions annually.

The success of GDS demonstrates the powerful benefits of digitisation, in everything from user experience to management to savings on the bottom line. But the government is far from the only organisation harnessing digital transformation to step-change their operations. From booking apps, to algorithm-based retail recommendations, digitisation has proven near-limitless potential across the business world.

One huge driver for digitisation has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated shifts in working so swift and absolute that even technological heel-draggers like construction found themselves drawn to digital solutions. With limitations to worker numbers on site, processes such as Building Information Modelling became more important than ever as a way of planning projects off-site. Companies turned to paperless systems as a way of coordinating information between remote teams. And for workers on site, reporting coronavirus and tracking contact to try and prevent the virus spreading was efficiently facilitated by cloud-based applications, which allowed for instant communication and containment of outbreaks. In a few months, coronavirus catalysed a digital shift that the construction industry had resisted for more than a decade.

However, the upshot of this is that companies who have persisted with analogue methods are now under threat. Digitised construction companies can offer more efficient delivery, more accurate projections and more economical quotes, alongside a clearer view of project health for stakeholders. And even outside of the industry, parallel firms who have benefitted from digital efficiencies are now looking to move into the gaps within construction.

With the adoption of paperless technologies now so prevalent, firms looking to stay relevant must digitise – or fossilise. As an industry insider, I would estimate companies have two years to modernise their operations or face antiquation.

One game-changing way construction companies can reap the rewards of digital systems is through moving their health and safety compliance admin onto an application such as illeso. Health and safety is a particularly opportune area due to the breadth of information required, and its continually evolving complexity.

Using an application means health and safety can be completed via any device, with completed documents stored securely in the cloud. This not only provides a far greater level of security than physical documents stored in the back office, but storing in the cloud also removes the need for bulky filing cabinets and boxes, which have to be kept on file for up to 20 years. Digital storage also enables fast record location, through record or keyword search, and remote accessibility across any device, allowing teams to move faster and spend more time on valuable work instead of paper-pushing. This enables massive time savings, helping construction companies stay competitive.

Application-based health and safety admin can greatly simplify the compliance process for construction companies. With administrative requirements from HSE becoming more and more exacting, and new legislation being continually rolled out, site administrators are being stretched thin in organisations, which can lead to poor documentation that is not legally compliant, or sometimes missed altogether. This puts construction companies at risk of legal action, as well as endangering staff on site. Applications can send notifications of upcoming or outstanding health and safety forms – such as plant maintenance certification reminders – to ensure nothing gets missed by administrators.

Centralising all compliance information in the cloud also enables easy and swift analysis of health and safety data. This could then be used to improve safety on site. For example, if site managers noticed a slew of accidents centralised in a particular area, they could investigate the terrain or apparatus in this area to find an underlying cause. Health and safety data could also be used by procurement teams to help identify the safest plant or equipment purchases.

Application-based compliance also offers benefits around the whole construction community. Within teams, health and safety has conventionally been delivered top-down, with regulations being set by HSE, imposed by managers and reinforced through Toolbox Talks. While established, this old fashioned method does nothing to empower workers to take responsibility for their own health and safety. Applications can help redress this by enabling a two-way conversation between managers and operatives, replacing public Toolbox Talks with documentation workers can absorb in their own time, with options to privately question working practices or make suggestions for improvements. Access to health and safety data can also help operatives see why such procedures are important, which practices are most likely to result in accidents, and how unsafe behaviours might affect others around them. All of this helps create a more mature working environment, where employees are encouraged to feed into and be responsible for their working community.

Construction itself is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with huge leaps in technology, plant and modelling softwares. With a modernised approach to paperwork, it could be even better.

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