Drones and Construction Safety

Michael Jandzinski, OHST. Safety & Health Consultant
Susan G. Fahmy, CSP, Director of Safety
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAVs), have seen much technological advancement since they were first used in
the military. Today’s drones are more
lightweight and more agile than previous versions. They can also stream live
video. All while being operated from the ground by a pilot.
Drone systems – which usually consist of an
operator, control system, ground and satellite equipment,
communication links and the drone itself – are now being used in various ways
on construction sites. Soon we can expect to find drones on construction sites
as often as drills and scaffolds, especially if they can continue to improve
worker safety, boost jobsite efficiency and reduce costs for contractors.
According to the National Institute of Occupational
Safety and Health (
NIOSH), “the emerging uses of UAVs in the construction industry range from
aiding with construction project planning by aerial mapping of a construction
site to extending the actual building of structures.”
Drones can monitor construction
sites, especially large sites or those spread out over several locations, often
more quickly and efficiently than on-the-ground construction management. Drones
can be equipped with infrared cameras, radar and other technology that enhances
their surveillance capabilities on a jobsite. This information is useful for
tracking not only construction progress but also workers, equipment and
material on a jobsite.
In the case
highway work zones, drones can inspect the entire expanse of road or an
adjacent structure when fast-moving traffic presents a serious hazard for
OSHA Now Using Drones
to Inspect Employer Facilities
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
issued a memorandum in 2018 announcing that agency inspectors are now
authorized to use drones to collect evidence during inspections in certain
workplace settings. As of now, the employer must be made aware of this and
grant consent. However, OSHA is seeking a Blanket Public COA from the FAA to be
able to use the drones anywhere in the country.
During 2018,
OSHA reportedly used drones with cameras to conduct at least nine inspections
of employer worksites. The drones were primarily used following serious
employee injuries at worksites that were considered too dangerous for OSHA
inspectors to physically inspect. This included a building collapse, a
combustible dust blast and a chemical plant explosion.
Drones quickly provide OSHA
inspectors a detailed view of a facility, drastically increasing what can be
viewed. This raises a number of questions.
Historically, employers are
advised that if an OSHA compliance officer arrives at their company, they
should escort them directly to the location they are requesting to see. OSHA is
permitted to investigate anything that is in “plain sight” but cannot just freely
explore the worksite. The use of drones with cameras might identify more
hazards than the traditional walk around would.
During a typical OSHA inspection the
employer is encouraged to accompany the inspector. This includes taking the
same pictures, measurements and other data so that the employer obtains the
same information as the inspector gathered during the walk around. When a drone
is used this becomes extremely difficult to accomplish. Prior to giving
consent, an employer should ensure that:
·      they have a
voice in establishing the drones flight plan
·      all photographs
and videos will be shared
·      the issue of employer’s
trade secrets is addressed.
Under OSHA’s
Multi-Employer Worksite Citation Policy, more than one employer can be held
liable for a hazardous condition. This is common on construction sites. Can a
General Contractor give consent
for drone use during an inspection involving a worksite involving multiple
employers? Who has authority to grant consent?
The use of
drones is not going away. They are being used by contractors to get the job
done more efficiently, cost-effectively and safer. OSHA is likely to expand the
use of drones from worksites that are considered too dangerous for OSHA to
inspect, to use in more routine inspections. Employers need to be prepared for
their arrival and continued use.