Raymond A. Volpatt Jr. recalls with some distress the painful months starting in April 2020. Although some of his family-owned contracting company’s work was deemed essential and continued in the early pandemic, a third of its annual revenue, $10 million worth, was cancelled or postponed.
“I sat down with my accountant,” said Volpatt, the Pittsburgh firm's president who prefers to go by Ray, “and looked at the books and determined that if employees had nothing to do and we had no more revenue, I could keep the doors open and continue paying about 12 office staff ” for about two-and-a-half years, he said. “Anybody I could keep working, I kept working,” he says. “Did I lose sleep? Yeah.”
Photo by Bruce Buckley for ENR
That kind of worry prompted much reflection about the future of Volpatt Construction, the construction manager and general contractor founded in 1991 by Volpatt’s father, Raymond Volpatt Sr. To keep pace with changes needed for technologically sophisticated and safety-conscious clients, the plan now calls for Volpatt Construction to travel a road that many big construction contractors are already on. It means working with digital twin 3D models, and gathering data from jobsite sensors—some clipped right to the belts of the construction craft workers themselves.
Relatively few companies of Volpatt’s size have fully embraced these technologies. To do it, Ray, through his younger brother and co-owner, Michael, made a fortuitous connection to some software firms now entering the construction market, forging a link that extends from the northern stretch of the Ohio River Valley to Silicon Valley and back again.
Ray, 53, and Michael, 50, worked and signed a pact with a five-year-old software service company, UrsaLeo. Then the brothers formed a separate new company of their own, ShareinTech. It is a value-added reseller in four states of the UrsaLeo digital twin technology that Volpatt Construction is using. The initiatives are still in their infancy, but the hope is that digital twin services will bring Volpatt recurring revenue. More recently, UrsaLeo partnered with another company whose software platform links into safety monitoring devices. But the success of any safety program built around these devices depends on the acceptance by Volpatt’s jobsite crews, with some finesse by Ray and Michael.
The comparatively small Volpatt Construction is not unique among contractors using such tools, observes Jeff Burd, president of Tall Timber Group, a Pittsburgh-based construction industry publisher and consultant, who is familiar with the regional market and its players. What may make it exceptional is the amount of effort the company is putting into embracing such technology, as many firms remain content to watch from the sidelines. “You can argue,” says Burd, “that a company the size of Volpatt gains as much or more [from the technology] as a larger company.”
Volpatt’s technology reinvention fits neatly into some well-worn industry conversations. According to numerous authors and analysts in recent decades, construction is technologically backward, with its competitive future depending on gathering oceans of new data and using it to refine operations.
If up until now much of the recent progress has been by big firms—such as those near the top of the ENR Top 400 Contractors ranking—Volpatt, a regional contractor with no immediate plans on expanding beyond its core geographical market area in central and western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and West Virginia—may be a clearer sign of broader, industry-wide change than anything happening at the much bigger players.
Volpatt Construction President Raymond Volpatt Jr. discusses the safety monitoring devices with crew members, supervisors and a safety expert.
Photos by Bruce Buckley for ENR
Wearable safety monitoring devices, which gather safety data and can ring out or vibrate an alert for potential dangers, are one of the more promising and complex elements of the ever-evolving American workplace. But using them is not such a simple ask of employees accustomed to a certain feeling of independence while on the job. Privacy is the biggest hurdle.
On the other hand, some see wearable safety monitors as essential future elements of the construction workplace, particularly on busy jobsites with numerous subcontractors and suppliers present in what can appear to be semi-controlled chaos. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Safety Council, insurers and various contractors and safety scholars are all exploring the subject in research and webinars. A recent report, published by Dodge Data & Analytics and developed with CPWR, the Center for Construction Research and Training, says one out of three survey respondents rated wearable sensors as the technology most likely to have a positive impact on worker safety and health management.
“My feeling is that they could be transformational,” Matthew R. Hallowell, a safety expert and assistant professor of civil engineering at Colorado State University, told ENR, “but they will only be successful in a fully connected system (where many things are equipped with sensors and monitored, not just humans).”
If such devices are shown to improve safety, overcome privacy worries and become part of fully connected systems, they may wind up on the belts and in the jacket pockets of millions of workers. Ray Volpatt believes in an interconnected, data-rich future, including predictive safety and forensic analytics. But it took time to turn Volpatt Construction in that direction.
The story begins with Raymond Volpatt Sr., now 85, who after rising to be the founding president of P.J. Dick, the big Pittsburgh-based contractor, split off to form his own company. It developed into a $30-million a year, reliable-as-a-rock favorite of Western Pennsylvania universities, hospitals and churches. The company says on its website that it has never had litigation or an arbitration or mediation. Ray Volpatt says it's unusual for him to have a claim on the job, finding ways to come to agreements with owners and subcontractors to prevent legal action.
Volpatt Construction’s business mix—numerous $4- million to $5-million projects sprinkled in among larger ones—bears the stamp of a conservative, service-oriented approach. Significantly, Volpatt Construction has largely stayed close to its home territory of Western Pennsylvania, where it is a signatory with carpenters and laborers unions.
For a long time, technology was not a priority. Tall Timber Group’s Burd says that Raymond Volpatt Sr. was more interested in investing in building technology and equipment than software. Ray Volpatt Jr. says his father insisted that saving on labor costs had to be the justification for investing in software or technology.
Before he was old enough to question that, Ray worked several summers during high school and college as a construction laborer. While attending Penn State, he worked for other contractors and became a licensed engineer. Meanwhile, Michael studied business and marketing at the University of Pittsburgh.
With a partner, Michael built Larkin/Volpatt, a San Francisco-based marketing communications company with many technology clients. Although far away from the jobsites, Michael has provided marketing advice to Volpatt Construction.
A monitor in Volpatt's office shows what is happening on a roof where a crew is working.
Photo by Bruce Buckley for ENR
The Pandemic Assessment and Decisions
In 2020, to help keep staff on the payroll during the pandemic, Volpatt Construction took two federal Paycheck Protection Program loans worth a total of $1.3 million. This lull in work also provided time and mental space for Ray to ponder what Volpatt was doing.
Ray and the staff reviewed office and jobsite processes and policies, project management and accounting systems and their internal administration. Jobsite safety was on their minds after what Ray says were “a couple of rough years” of lost-time injuries that hit the company’s workers’ compensation experience modification rating. “We felt we could do better,” he says.
The Volpatts were aware that other, bigger companies were innovating with new technologies and that 3D models were important. Before the pandemic, Michael says, his communications company partner started working with UrsaLeo’s co-founder, John Burton, who was moving into the 3D digital twin space. Then, during the pandemic, “There were applications in construction and Ray began advising UrsaLeo on market entry,” Michael says. Individually, the Volpatts began investing in UrsaLeo, too.
In January, UrsaLeo’s Burton signed a partnering agreement with Connect Up Technologies, a software maker that works to bring data in from safety monitoring devices and sensors. This data is brought through an Internet of Things framework into a form that can be fed into digital project models.
The digital modeling and safety pieces began to fall into place for Volpatt Construction as well.
In addition to offering up Volpatt's offices as a test case for the UrsaLeo digital twins, the Volpatts also decided to distribute Connect Up-certified devices to about a dozen staff members working on the firm's $2.9-million roof renovation project at Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
A report generated from the data produced by the safety monitoring devices in a single day on Volpatt's convention center roof project.
Image courtesy of Volpatt Construction
Connect Up's technology works through rugged smartphones, like those offered by Caterpillar or RugGear. It has a SIM card that is recognized by the LTE network. These smartphones can cost anywhere from about $200 to $800 per unit, depending on the feature set. The platform uses an app and the phones' sensors to collect data on slips and trips or falls, noise levels and even air quality. Geofencing features can warn if a worker enters a hazardous area, such as a roof's edge. The platform also allows users to remotely communicate with site supervisors and automatically alert them to potential safety hazards in their vicinity.
“You can argue that a company the size of Volpatt gains as much or more [from the technology] as a larger company.”
Jeff Burd, owner, Tall Timber Group
In addition to the sensor feedback, Connect Up's system also produces daily reports which can be used for forensic analysis after safety incidents and used later for training and safety prevention.
The platform also allows managers who log into the portal to see who activated a device in the morning and where they currently are. Ray says that while there could be some benefit to seeing staff location during working hours, peering in on staff regularly is a waste of time.
Before deploying the devices, Ray Volpatt demonstrated them to a key carpenters union representative. While Volpatt has no explicit permission to use the devices from the union, the company is working toward that with union officials. Carpenters union officials could not be reached for comment by ENR at press time.
Rather than have others introduce the device, Ray says he went to the convention center jobsite himself to discuss it with the craft workers, managers and supervisors. “I said, ‘We’re going to try this out to see if it will make the job safer. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
An early test at the convention center project came at about 6:50 a.m. the day after the devices were deployed. A young worker backing a power buggy down a ramp accidentally tripped the machine into neutral, sending it and the worker down the ramp out of control. The worker's leg was injured when it got caught in the scaffolding underneath the ramp. He is now back at work, in Volpatt's office.
Connect Up's report of what the device the worker was wearing recorded matched up with what happened. This data helped Volpatt convince the convention center's construction manager to widen the path of the ramp and alter the scaffold. A different type of power buggy was used going forward.
Respect for the workers' feelings, says Ray, and rewarding successful use of the device is paramount. “It’s awkward to ask somebody to put a device on that they think will trace their every step and that they might think I could sit and watch them,” says Ray. The Big Brother-ish aspect did turn off a couple of workers who declined to use the device, says Ray. “My policy right now is I’m not going to force anybody to wear anything that they are uncomfortable wearing.”
A screenshot of a digital twin detail of Volpatt's office created using the UrsaLeo platform.
Image courtesy of Volpatt Construction
Privacy and the Generational Divide
How the data is handled is a critical part of selling the system to the jobsite staff. Ray says Volpatt is trying to cultivate a culture of data privacy, which needs to be shared with trade organizations, subcontractors and trade unions. Technology companies and HR teams, he says, must develop privacy policies to protect staff.
Under Volpatt’s own policy, data collected by the safety devices will not be linked to a specific worker's name or record—so going forward it will be anonymized as it flows from the device to the management portal. The data will be available only to people with direct access to the portal. In time that could include field supervisors. The collected data will be stored in the Connect Up portal for up to seven years.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Ray headed out to the convention center roof project while the crew was free to offer up its opinions to an ENR reporter.
Not all of Volpatt's employees are quick to buy into the new technology. Tom Owens, a field superintendent who has worked for Volpatt for 25 years, says he and many in his crews were initially uneasy about what data the devices could collect and how it would be used. “We were concerned we were being tracked on time and locations,” he explains. “Those were the initial conversations.”
Raymond Volpatt Jr., president, Volpatt Construction
In fact, Owens says he sometimes forgets to turn it off after work and leaves it on in his truck. “If I go a couple of places after work, I guess [Ray] knows where I went,” he says.
The portal can see the device regardless of its location as long as it is powered on and if an employee takes the device with him or her at day's end “I would be able to see them but there's no benefit to me,” says Ray. Use of the portal by managers after work hours is generally to set up a jobsite or update geofencing. If employees log out (rather than turning off the device) the device's fleet management feature stays on and it still is visible.
Four weeks after he started using it, Owens still isn’t sure what to think. “If you can prove to me that this is fully about safety, I've got no problem with that. If you can prove it.”
Younger workers who are generally more likely to accept that their smartphones, social media and Google searches are already collecting data about them could be more open to these kinds of arrangements. Jason Kerin, who has been in construction for 11 years and is a superintendent on the convention center project, says he has no issue with using the safety tracking devices. On the convention center site, he says it’s particularly helpful. “This site is about 900 feet long,” he explains. “If I’m at one end and something happens at the other end, I get that alert on my cell phone. I’d say that’s huge positive on a site like this.”
As for concerns about being tracked beyond safety monitoring, Kerin says he doesn’t see a problem because workers are already expected to clock in and clock out each day. “If you’re doing the right thing and you’re working, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Ray Volpatt believes the worries about tracking will fade as workers become even more safety-conscious due to the devices. They'll learn how the information flowing from this system can reinforce their own good safety habits and decisions, and that the information won't be used as a way to punish lapses. That, Volpatt says, will go far in earning the needed trust.