Description and Details

The con­struc­tion indus­try is wide­ly inac­ces­si­ble to those with a phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ty due to the phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing work­load, increased safe­ty risks, and demand­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty dead­lines. These con­di­tions lim­it the num­ber of able work­ers while putting them at an increased risk of long-term injury or dis­abil­i­ty. The emerg­ing field of human-robot col­lab­o­ra­tion (HRC) has the poten­tial to make con­struc­tion more acces­si­ble by shift­ing the phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing aspects of the role to robot­ic collaborators.
HRC is defined as human and robot­ic col­lab­o­ra­tion in a work­space to estab­lish a dynam­ic sys­tem for accom­plish­ing tasks in an envi­ron­ment. The field falls into a broad spec­trum of diverg­ing reliance on man­u­al con­trol to full auton­o­my. This results in con­struc­tion relat­ed HRC tech­nol­o­gy tak­ing many forms. Exoskele­tons, robot­ic arms, rovers, and lin­ear assem­blers com­pose dif­fer­ent areas of research that either reduce or offload phys­i­cal require­ments. While they have seen lim­it­ed imple­men­ta­tion on-site, their meth­ods offer a more adap­tive work process through col­lab­o­ra­tion and response to human cog­ni­tion com­pared with their rigid indus­tri­al robot­ic coun­ter­parts. Con­struc­tion jobs have tra­di­tion­al­ly nev­er been sep­a­rat­ed from the phys­i­cal labor they demand. HRC and their asso­ci­at­ed col­lab­o­ra­tive work­spaces would allow work­ers the abil­i­ty to apply their knowl­edge and prob­lem-solv­ing abil­i­ties with­out tax­ing phys­i­cal demands. Poten­tial­ly cre­at­ing new inclu­sive work­ing roles in con­struc­tion for peo­ple across the spec­trum of phys­i­cal ability.
HRC imple­men­ta­tion could also have a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive impact on the work­force in con­struc­tion and those with dis­abil­i­ties. For con­text, it is esti­mat­ed that over 500,000 new work­ers are need­ed this year to keep pace with con­struc­tion demand, the high­est lev­el ever record­ed. This esti­mate is only expect­ed to grow, as America’s aging infra­struc­ture and work­force will like­ly exac­er­bate con­struc­tion demands while lim­it­ing the sup­ply of avail­able work­ers. At the same time, con­struc­tion work has a high loss per­cent­age for exist­ing work­ers due to injury. Of the aver­age 150,000 injuries a year indus­try-wide, over 25% are attrib­ut­able to overuse and overex­er­tion. These types of injuries can fre­quent­ly lead to mus­cu­loskele­tal dis­abil­i­ties that impact work­ers’ qual­i­ty of life and abil­i­ty to work long-term. HRC imple­men­ta­tion could not only reduce the fre­quen­cy and sever­i­ty of these injuries but also retain posi­tions for work­ers who would no longer be able to work in a phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing role. Addi­tion­al­ly, a larg­er and more inclu­sive pool of work­ers could find employ­ment in con­struc­tion with reduced or mit­i­gat­ed phys­i­cal require­ments. An esti­mat­ed 15% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lives with some form of dis­abil­i­ty. It is also esti­mat­ed that the por­tion of work­ing-age peo­ple with a dis­abil­i­ty is only 35%. In a col­lab­o­ra­tive robot­ic envi­ron­ment, greater work oppor­tu­ni­ties could be offered to those liv­ing with dis­abil­i­ties while also reduc­ing the num­ber of des­per­ate­ly need­ed posi­tions with­in the con­struc­tion industry.
With­out a doubt, many oth­er fac­tors at play com­pli­cate the poten­tial imple­men­ta­tion of HRC and inclu­siv­i­ty for those with dis­abil­i­ties in con­struc­tion. First, there are many oth­er rea­sons unre­lat­ed to work­ing abil­i­ty that result in the under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of employ­ees with dis­abil­i­ties. Dis­crim­i­na­tion from employ­ers and oth­er employ­ees con­tributes large­ly to a hos­tile work­ing envi­ron­ment that mar­gin­al­izes peo­ple regard­less of their pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Con­struc­tion as an indus­try is far from inno­cent in that regard, and it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize that greater inclu­siv­i­ty would also need to be accom­pa­nied by a broad­er cul­tur­al change. Addi­tion­al­ly, HRC has many more chal­lenges to over­come regard­ing the rig­or­ous safe­ty test­ing that ensures safe­ty for any work­er with­in its col­lab­o­ra­tive envi­ron­ment. Much less the ques­tion of whether it can be a pro­duc­tive tool at the unstruc­tured and high­er-risk sites found in construction.
Nonethe­less, HRC presents a trans­for­ma­tive solu­tion to the acces­si­bil­i­ty chal­lenges present in the con­struc­tion indus­try. By shift­ing phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing tasks to robot­ic col­lab­o­ra­tors, a more inclu­sive envi­ron­ment for peo­ple of dif­fer­ing phys­i­cal abil­i­ties could be cre­at­ed while reduc­ing con­struc­tion work­er demand and work­force attri­tion due to injuries from overexertion.

Discussion Questions

1. How does the imple­men­ta­tion of Human-Robot Col­lab­o­ra­tion (HRC) in the con­struc­tion indus­try address the acces­si­bil­i­ty chal­lenges faced by indi­vid­u­als with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, and what poten­tial ben­e­fits does it offer in terms of work­place inclu­siv­i­ty and safety?

2. In what ways can var­i­ous HRC tech­nolo­gies, such as exoskele­tons, robot­ic arms, and rovers, con­tribute to reduc­ing the phys­i­cal demands of con­struc­tion work? How might these tech­nolo­gies cre­ate a more adap­tive work process through col­lab­o­ra­tion and respon­sive­ness to human cognition?

3. What are the poten­tial soci­etal and eco­nom­ic impacts of suc­cess­ful­ly imple­ment­ing HRC in the con­struc­tion indus­try, con­sid­er­ing fac­tors such as the increas­ing demand for con­struc­tion work­ers, high injury rates, and the need for a more inclu­sive work­force? How might HRC con­tribute to address­ing these chal­lenges and shap­ing the future of the con­struc­tion sector?


Peer-Reviewed Arti­cles:

Toward Adap­tive Human–Robot Col­lab­o­ra­tion for the Inclu­sion of Peo­ple with Dis­abil­i­ties in Man­u­al Labor Tasks. Elec­tron­ics 2023, 12(5), 1118;

Human–Robot Col­lab­o­ra­tion in Con­struc­tion: Clas­si­fi­ca­tion and Research Trends. Pub­li­ca­tion: Jour­nal of Con­struc­tion Engi­neer­ing and Management
Vol­ume 147, Issue 10–7862.000215

Accep­tance of Indus­tri­al Col­lab­o­ra­tive Robots by Peo­ple With Dis­abil­i­ties in Shel­tered Work­shops. Front. Robot. AI, 11 Jan­u­ary 2021
Sec. Human-Robot Interaction
Vol­ume 7 — 2020 |

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