How Construction Equipment Technologies Can Make Operators Better and Safer

Telematics, payload-weighing and operator-attentiveness systems create data that’s changing performance boundaries; using it to coach rather than discipline could distinguish the winners

Inside Caterpillar's 24/7 Monitoring Center, analysts correlate data about the health and productivity of operators and equipment to reveal the magnitude of conditions such as fatigue and distraction and their impact on operations.
Inside Caterpillar's 24/7 Monitoring Center, analysts correlate data about the health and productivity of operators and equipment to reveal the magnitude of conditions such as fatigue and distraction and their impact on operations.

Today’s technology gives construction companies new tools that mean supervisors no longer have to rely exclusively on operators’ perspectives to explore the limits of equipment productivity and safety.

Without telematics, payload-weighing and operator-attentiveness systems, the only person who knows exactly what’s happening on a project’s machines is their operators. The situation does not offer a lot of opportunity for operating refinements that improve safety and production.

But now there are sensors on machines that record events such as extreme braking or engine overspeed, and telematics technologies that wirelessly communicate the data and send alerts to managers. Payload-weighing systems keep tabs on loader-bucket and truck-bed loads. There are even cameras that recognize operators’ head, eye and mouth positions, and decide when an operator is nodding off, or inattentive to the job.

These technologies share the knowledge of what’s going on in today’s equipment to an unprecedented number of people. Your most important asset is still in the seat, though, and the crucial next step is finding the most effective way to apply operating insights to improve project safety, productivity and profits.

Coaching Replaces Discipline

“The Cat Driver Safety System (DSS) is really your last line of defense,” says Todd Dawson, project manager at Caterpillar Safety Services, describing a video technology that employs a camera in the cab that watches for signs that a driver is fatigued or distracted. “It (the DSS) doesn’t care why you’re tired or what happened before. All it knows is that it’s watching your facial features – your eyes, mouth and face. And if you start to nod off it says, ‘Hey this guy’s eyes are closing. He’s falling asleep, and I’m going to alarm him.’”

The remarkable technology – often used in mines that operate round the clock – is tied into actuators in the cab that can sound an alarm and vibrate the operator’s seat much like the lane-departure warnings in today’s automobiles. The system is set up to report exceptions – suspected fatigue events – and deliver video of the event to Caterpillar Safety Advisor who evaluate it and pass it on, as necessary, to the customer’s designated representative.

[VIDEO]Caterpillar Explains Technology for Stopping Accidents Caused by Operator Fatigue

A crucial element of changing operator behaviors, rather than starting a cascade of creative camera malfunctions is what Dawson calls a customer’s “fatigue intervention plan.” The plan, developed with the DSS customer, clearly outlines how to interact with an operator who has a fatigue event.

“One of the keys is that fatigue is no longer a disciplinary issue – it’s more an opportunity for coaching,” Dawson says. “Maybe the first step is to have dispatch call the operator to say, ‘Hey are you OK? Do you need a break?’”

If an operator has a second event on a shift, the intervention plan may call for a supervisor to go out to meet face-to-face. Again, Dawson emphasizes that the object of the meeting is not discipline, but to evaluate the operator’s condition and collaborate on a solution, such as taking a break to get some coffee or moving to a different piece of equipment.

“What’s interesting is that as you make people aware that they are falling asleep, they start to change a lot of their behaviors at work and at home,” Dawson says. “They try to get better rest at home, bring foods that are a little better at helping them stay awake while they’re on shift. Or they’ll ask for a break if they really start to feel tired.”

Collaborating over data provided by technology to improve operators’ work may be the most productive lesson learned by DSS users. Machine technology is changing the way everybody looks at operating performance because the detailed data has only been available for a short time. Very few operators have any experience with monitoring technologies, and aside from the rare production study done by a handful of experts, there have been almost no authoritative sources of information to raise the bar that operators set themselves.

Telematics Provides Toolbox Talks

Modifying operator behavior may not be the first priority when implementing telematics data into operations. The easiest ways to learn to use and manage the data, and the quickest return on investment for most contractors probably come from measuring and optimizing hours of operation, machine location and engine idling time. Once you’re up and running comfortably with those basics, the fault-code histories that telematics systems collect can help identify operators’ misconceptions about machine operation.

For example, Tier 4 emissions technology onboard diesel machines can require regeneration of exhaust filters. If a regeneration cycle has to take place at the end of a shift, the machine is designed to keep running until the regen process is complete even if the operator has switched it off.

“If you were to shut your truck off and it kept running, it would confuse you out a little bit, right?” says Craig Cutting, system application rep for Caterpillar’s Product Link telematics. “So you might keep turning that key to override the machine. It will work, but once you override the engine, then the regen process stops before it is finished. It’s one of those things that may not hurt the machine the first four or five times when you do it, but if you do it enough it’s going to need a technician to come out and fix the machine.”

Telematics systems allow reports of the previous day’s fault codes to be scheduled so they’re available first thing in the morning.

“These fault codes can turn into a morning toolbox talk before the operators get back onto the equipment,” Cutting says, recommending that this is a teaching moment. Operators need to know how the equipment operates and the company’s policy on how to avoid damage to the machines. “You can highlight solutions to some of the most-common fault codes that you are seeing to help change the behavior on the job site.”