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Solving a Billion-Dollar Problem



The headlines pop up with alarming regularity, from coast to coast and all points in between, buttressing estimates from the National Insurance Crime Bureau that about $1 billion in construction equipment is stolen in the United States each year.

Pro Vigil’s motion-activated system automatically triggers lights, sirens and recorded announcements to scare off would-be thieves.

In North Carolina, two work trucks, two trailers and two mini excavators were stolen from a construction company and recovered near a boat ramp on the Cape Fear River. Separately, three men were arrested and accused of stealing excavators, skid steers, trailers and other equipment from construction sites across Florida and Georgia. Not to be outdone, four men in Cleveland were charged with stealing more than $1 million in construction equipment, vehicles and parts.

All of those incidents, and many others just like them, occurred within just a few weeks of each other this past winter, illustrating the daunting challenge facing construction companies and local authorities.

“Theft can happen when construction sites are not monitored with cameras or when overall security is lax,” says Tom Webb, vice president of strategic initiatives and customer relations for HCSS, which provides software solutions to construction companies and is a member of multiple AGC chapters.

Theft can also happen when a worker walks off with a small item or tool, not even realizing until they get home that they walked off with the item.

“Because construction materials are in such high demand due to COVID, prices have skyrocketed, making these materials even more susceptible to thieves,” he adds. “If materials or equipment are stolen from a jobsite, delays to the project can happen.”

Andrew Lambert, a group program manager at Milwaukee Tool, a member of multiple AGC chapters, says industry research shows that 30 percent of tool and equipment purchases are made to replace lost or stolen items. Even when equipment hasn’t been stolen, it can be misplaced by workers on a construction site. Lambert said 35 percent of the typical worker’s time is considered nonproductive, and a majority of that time is spent looking for items needed to execute work.

“Not having a tool readily available when you need it costs time and productivity,” Lambert says. “The cost of stolen or missing tools is never factored into a project’s budget. With margins razor thin already, additional costs are incurred as you need to sell more work to replace these lost or stolen items.”

To combat the scourge of equipment theft, many construction firms are embracing technological solutions, and they have many options to choose from. HCSS, for example, offers its Telematics software solution, which uses GPS technology to track fleet usage and location. In Febru-ary, the technology allowed a contractor to recover a $55,000 skid steer that had been stolen from a jobsite just a day earlier and transported 30 miles away, Webb says.

Similarly, Milwaukee Tool offers its One-Key solution, which combines asset ID tagging, equipment trackers, barcode scanning and geofenc-ing to create a comprehensive asset-tracking platform for contractors. Using geofencing technology, construction managers receive an alert when a tool or piece of equipment has been removed from a designated area, allowing them to take action quickly.

Lambert says smart tools with built-in tracking systems are another option. These tools can be disabled if lost or stolen, rendering them useless to thieves and discouraging future theft, he says. Tools and equipment that don’t have built-in tracking can be paired with equipment trackers powered by Bluetooth wireless technology, making it easy for contractors to track their location.

For tools and equipment of lesser value, contractors can use asset ID tagging and barcodes to help prevent theft and track usage, Lambert says.

The range of solutions available to contractors is growing increasingly high-tech. Pro-Vigil, for example, combines remote video monitoring and artificial intelligence to enhance jobsite security. Through machine learning, the system can identify different sounds and decide whether they represent a security threat. The sound of glass breaking, for example, will elicit a different response from the system than the sound of a flag flapping in the wind.

“The cost of stolen or missing tools is never factored into a project’s budget. With margins razor thin already, additional costs are incurred as you need to sell more work to replace these lost or stolen items.”

Andrew Lambert, Milwaukee Tool

The motion-activated system automatically triggers lights, sirens and recorded announcements to scare off would-be thieves.

“AI is such a powerful tool, and when combined with video surveillance, suspicious activity can be spotted within seconds, and a series of recorded announcements, strobe lights and sirens can send thieves running before they ever have a chance to touch your pricey machines, materials or tools,” says Jeremy White, founder of Pro-Vigil, a member of multiple AGC chapters.

Phil Casto, senior vice president for risk services at HUB International, an insurance broker with a dedicated specialty group for the construction industry and a member of multiple AGC chapters, says the cost of technological solutions has come down significantly in recent years, making them increasingly viable for contractors.

“It used to be a pretty big-ticket item to use a GPS system, a camera system or something like that,” Casto says. “But now, it’s really getting less expensive, and the solutions are more integrated, with real-time alerts and real-time monitoring. It’s easier to use and leverage technology, whereas it used to be more burdensome and more limited in its use.”

Aside from technological solutions, there are many ways contractors can prevent equipment theft. Here are some more tips from the experts:

  • Permanently identify and inventory tools and equipment. Mark or label everything, from smaller hand tools to heavy equipment, with the company name and contact information, Casto says. Contractors should use welders or etching tools to make the identification marks hard to remove, and remember to mark attachments and removable parts as well, Casto says.

    This is an important practice because police often find warehouses or garages full of equipment stolen from multiple sites, and if it isn’t clearly marked, authorities will have a difficult time determining the rightful owner of each piece of equipment, he says. When that happens, equipment often is auctioned off instead of being returned to victimized contractors, Casto says.
  • Put physical barriers in place. Start with a locked, fully encapsulated building envelope, locked doors and climb-resistant fencing, with surveillance warnings and notice of penalties to trespassers posted prominently, Casto says.

    In addition, contractors should limit the number of access points to the site. Onsite guards may seem expensive but can be a cost-effective security measure for sites in high-crime areas, Casto says. Abundant lighting at night is critical and can be an effective deterrent, he adds.

    “Fencing the property is important,” says White, of Pro-Vigil. “It serves as a physical deterrent, it slows intruders down, it makes carrying mate-rials out more difficult and buys more time for local law enforcement to respond. Add lighting because it is a natural deterrent. Thieves are more comfortable operating in the dark and don’t like being visible to guards, cameras or passersby.”
  • Limit the mobility factor. Easily portable and drivable equipment such as generators, welders and smaller equipment should be put behind locked doors, such as inside a Conex box or inside the building envelope, Casto says. Skid-steer loaders and tractors are among the most commonly stolen items, so contractors should consider solutions like hydraulic locks and options for hidden disconnects, he says.
  • Have adequate secured storage. Gang boxes should have enclosed and recessed locking points and locks that can’t be drilled open, Casto says. Wheels on gang boxes should be removed, and boxes should be locked down once set on-site. Workers should bring all equipment back to the shop whenever possible to avoid bringing tools home or leaving them in a vehicle, where they’re more susceptible to theft, he says.
  • Automate paper records to enhance visibility of inventory. Doing so allows contractors to monitor who checked out equipment, where it is on the jobsite and when it’s expected to return, says Webb, of HCSS. “This helps to deter ‘walking off’ with the equipment because management knows who is responsible for it,” he adds.
  • Keep valuable assets out of sight. Don’t stack valuable assets near the perimeter or fence, in plain sight of potential thieves, White says, especially since “most construction equipment and tools are easy to unload at a pawn shop, Craigslist or Ebay.”
  • Know who is on your site. General contractors may be managing a large project with many subcontractors, each of which has many em-ployees of its own, White says. Knowing who is on the site by requiring nametags and checking in when entering the site will reduce theft, he says.

    “Typically, the thieves on these sites are well informed by someone that works there, or they work there themselves,” White says.