Telematics as a Safety Tool

Nov. 17, 2015

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals.

Among the bag of benefits derived from the use of telematics, perhaps the most important is how it can reduce the risk of accidents and unsafe working conditions for both equipment and the work sites where they operate.

A.J. Johns is one company that has discovered the value of using telematics—a technology not envisioned when the company opened for business in 1970—as a safety tool. At that time, the organization supplied the industry with only utility needs. The business expanded its services in 1983 and became a full-service site developer. By 2004, about 80 percent of its sales were driven by residential development, including single-family home building and multifamily projects. The remaining services were provided to general contractors at a subcontractor level, according to Larry LeClair, CEM, equipment fleet manager, who heads up the $18 million fleet that includes 75 on-highway vehicles and 127 off-road machines.

“As we like to say in our company history, the road we have paved has not always been smooth, but it has been stable enough to expand our company and business model,” LeClair says.

That expansion brought along with it a drive to keep pace with a fast-moving technological trend that has propelled its way to the present-day evolution of telematics as a highly versatile management tool.

LeClair started using the technology on his on-highway vehicles early in 2014. This January, he added telematics application to the company’s off-road fleet.

So far the results of the off-highway units have turned out to be just as promising as those from the on-highway fleet. Still, LeClair says he is in the “infancy stage” of the move to off-road application. Even at this early stage, however, he has found that telematics has cut down on maintenance costs and repairs. “Looking at the initial numbers, our cost has gone down probably $3 to $4 an hour on the repair of off-road trucks,” he says.

LeClair was quick to realize there were additional benefits to be gained since telematics makes the off-road operations safer.

“Telematics safety was something we certainly wanted to bring to the attention of our insurance company,” he says. “We felt it could have an important impact on insurance costs.” The insurance company is currently evaluating this, he says.

Data analyzed on the equipment side is not the same information needed for job site safety, LeClair says.

“Our priority alerts for equipment would include excessive brake use, excessive hard turns, hard accelerations, or excessive locking,” he says. “We might not pay too much attention to moderate or no-status alerts, such as minor over-speed incidents, especially if the operator has a safe history.”

Data vital to work-site safety encompass a different set of values, including such things as tracking distance a unit travels along a route. If the data show distance is excessive, then corrective action is needed. Also important is identifying work sites that are located near wetlands or heavily traveled highways, work that is going on in what LeClair calls bad-condition areas. Those areas need to be built up, he says, to prevent equipment from being overused.

As steady streams of data flow in from various laptops, they are analyzed.

“We are looking for specific data,” he says. “That helps us come up with an accurate scenario of what is going on. If the information warrants it, we contact our technician and job foreman and bring them together.”

Feedback from operators is never underestimated during this telematics data analysis, LeClair says. “They play a critical role in the inner circle of technicians, operators and job foremen. We want operators to give us as much information as they can. We make our decision on what should be done based on what they see and feel.

“Even prior to telematics, information was based primarily on what operators told us,” he says. “For instance, they would say something was wrong with the truck, or they were not comfortable using the vehicle because the brakes were running hot, or there was too much vibration or axles were locking too much. At that time, that was all we had to go on.”

Now the technology and driver feedback are combined to help protect work sites and machines.

“Based on the data and reports coming from the trenches, we expect safety risks to be significantly reduced,” says LeClair. “As far as determining how much safety improvement can be attributed to telematics use, we don’t have a lot to go on right now, but we definitely will next year.”

In the meantime, the operator, field technician, and job foreman must continue to tweak and tighten the link between the data and what the operator feels, he says. A shop operations person tracks the telematics safety data.

The advantage of having a safety net wide enough to cover both machine and job site is that component wear—brakes, for example—is reduced, equipment repairs are needed less often, and with better roads winding throughout the work site, trucks get better fuel economy.

“The trucks become safer since they don’t have to travel across roads that have detrimental conditions. Not only is the job site safer for equipment, but it’s safer for the operators of the equipment,” LeClair says.

Before fleet managers can tap into the safety data
motherlode, however, “You have to have a technical person who knows how to navigate, receive and display the data,” says LeClair. “The operator has to be trained to use the hardware on the machine. The job foreman has to be trained on both sides; that is what telematics is all about and how it can help the project.

 “It is a circle of communications that has to take place every day to monitor safety in the trenches.”

Although it sounds like a lot of time is spent in the training mode, LeClair says, it isn’t. In fact, the training process is pretty quick.

“I’ve noticed the younger the operators are, the quicker they get it,” he says. “No offense to any of us older guys.”

To make sure any needed changes are taken care of, LeClair says, “We follow up in a couple of days. Also, we can see the data on a daily basis, and if no action is taken, we can get back to the project foreman to see what is causing the delay.”

As time goes on, telematics continues to prove its worth and versatility on a number of fronts that range from work site safety, from machine to management, from maintenance to preventive maintenance, all leading to a better bottom line.

“I think telematics is a new area for us and other contractors to take advantage of,” LeClair says. “It helps you get a better return on investment, and it also helps develop a culture of safety for workers and equipment. It creates a stronger bond that ties together the technology, the technician, operator and job foreman.”

A.J. Johns’ website sums it up this way: “Change is inevitable, but be assured we will never be afraid of it.”