Why BIMSafe?  The benefits and lessons learned from using BIM models for health and safety

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Three years ago, the Safety Charter and the Building Innovation Partnership at Canterbury University, with funding and support from ACC and MBIE, began a journey called BIMSafe NZ. The drivers for the project were New Zealand’s poor health and safety record within the construction industry, combined with the sector’s slow uptake of technology and low productivity gains. BIMSafe set out to raise awareness and understanding of what is possible by using the collaborative and communication powers of Building Information Modelling (BIM) for health and safety.

As the project draws to a close, we are launching a web portal of resources for the industry. This includes guidance articles, case studies, presentations, media articles, and research papers. The web portal is also intended to provide a space where the industry can share lessons learned through user-generated content, as the tools and knowledge of the industry grow over time.

The material provided on the web portal highlights a variety of insights and observations that have come from the BIMSafe project over the last three years. There is no doubt that BIM has revolutionised the construction industry by providing a collaborative platform for design, planning, and execution. While the benefits for project coordination and efficiency are well-documented, the impact of BIM on health and safety is equally significant.

  • Improved Design Coordination and Clash Detection:  By combining all disciplines’ models into a federated BIM model, conflicts between systems can be more easily identified and resolved by the design team. Early detection of clashes helps to improve the design and supports designers to make changes to mitigate potential hazards that could arise during construction. Providing contractors with a fully-coordinated design helps to reduce the delays and time pressure that can arise with insufficient or unclear documentation, which often lead to increased risk during construction.
  • Proactive Hazard Identification and Mitigation:  The visual nature of BIM allows project teams from design, construction, and end users to identify and address potential hazards before they show up on site. By virtually walking through the model in a collaborative health and safety by design (HSbD) process, teams can assess accessibility, manoeuvrability, and potential risks such as work at heights, confined spaces, or areas with limited access. This proactive approach enables the development of solutions that draw on the collective knowledge of the wider project team, leading to better control measures.
  • Enhanced Prefabrication and Reduced Manual Handling:  BIM facilitates the identification of elements suitable for prefabrication. By manufacturing components off-site in controlled environments, or on-site at ground level,  manual handling risks and hazardous work at height are significantly reduced. This is particularly beneficial for complex structures such as reinforcement cages, where prefabrication can minimise the need for workers to manipulate heavy materials in awkward positions. The BIMSafe team spoke to one sub-contractor which has gone from 20% prefabrication to 80% in a short period of time.
  • Improved Communication and Worker Engagement:  BIM models are a powerful addition to toolbox talks and safety briefings to help in communication and demonstration of safety issues. Workers can better visualise and understand site-specific conditions, tasks, and associated risks when presented with 3D models. This improved understanding fosters a stronger safety culture and increases worker engagement in identifying and mitigating hazards.
  • Lifecycle Thinking and Maintenance Considerations:  BIM helps project teams to consider health and safety for the entire lifecycle of the building, from design and construction through to operation and maintenance and even into reuse or demolition. By involving end-users such as facilities management teams early in the design process, potential hazards related to future maintenance tasks can be addressed. This foresight leads to designs that are inherently safer for both construction and long-term operation.
  • Reduced Rework and Associated Risks:  One of the most mentioned benefits from all stakeholders was on reducing rework. There is nothing more frustrating on a construction project than ripping out previously completed work, possibly due to a communication or planning error. Accurate modelling and coordination through BIM significantly reduce the need for rework during construction. Since rework often introduces additional hazards and is typically performed under time pressure, minimising it through precise planning and better communication between trades contributes to a safer work environment.

Lessons Learned

  • Early Collaboration is Key: The earlier the collaborative BIM process begins, the more opportunities exist to optimise the design for safety. Early involvement of as many stakeholders as possible, including subcontractors and end-users, provides more opportunities to shape a safer design and plan for safer construction and operation, from the outset.
  • Invest in Making BIM Accessible: For BIM to be effective in improving health and safety, it needs to be accessible to the wider workforce, not just BIM specialists. Investing in user-friendly hardware (e.g., large touchscreen displays, mobile devices) and software encourages uptake and utilisation across all levels of the project team.
  • Embrace Diverse Perspectives: The most comprehensive safety solutions arise when stakeholders from different backgrounds contribute their insights. BIM provides a common platform for this multidisciplinary input, but project leaders must actively seek and value these diverse perspectives.
  • Plan and Coordinate Model Usage: Effective use of BIM for safety requires careful planning. This includes defining clear processes for model sharing, updates and issue resolution. Without this coordination, the potential of BIM may not be fully realised.
  • Continuous Learning and Adaptation: As teams gain experience with collaborative BIM processes, they should continuously explore new features and functionalities that can enhance their ability to identify and mitigate health and safety risks. This might involve integrating BIM with other technologies such as total stations, drones, or AI-driven analysis tools.
  • Not Everyone Needs to Be Hands-On: While some workers may develop proficiency in manipulating BIM models, others may prefer or only require guided walkthroughs or selected printouts or screenshots from the model. The key is ensuring that safety-critical information is effectively communicated, whether through direct interaction with the model or through well-prepared presentations.
  • Capture and Share As-Built Data: Documenting the as-built conditions in the BIM model provides valuable information for future maintenance and renovation works. This reduces uncertainty and helps prevent accidents caused by unexpected site conditions.

Use of a BIMSafe approach offers significant benefits throughout the project lifecycle. From early design decisions to on-site operations and long-term maintenance, BIM provides a platform for visualising, communicating, and mitigating risks. The lessons learned from projects that have embraced this approach underscore the importance of collaboration, accessibility, and continuous improvement.

As the construction industry continues to evolve, BIM will undoubtedly play an increasingly central role in creating safer work environments. By sharing our experiences and learning from the experiences of others, we can refine our approaches to harness the full potential of this powerful tool to protect our most valuable asset—our people.

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