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Ten Questions Every Construction Safety Professional Should Ask

September 2010

I started my safety management career in California for 14 of the best safety coordinators in the United States. Each of these fine folks had their strengths but, during some site visits, I witnessed things they had overlooked. So I put together "The Top 20 Things TJ Never Wants To See on a Project."

By TJ Lyons

A clear expectation was set, my focus areas were clear, and the approach is still in use today. There is great value in this best practice—challenging teams to develop their own lists reveals what is important to them and to others.

Asking pointed questions is a critical element to the effort and provides an opportunity to test your teams. If the conversation becomes uncomfortable, then you have asked the right question. Alice Hamilton, regarded as the mother of industrial hygiene, reflected on a friend's approach to honesty in conversation:

Julia Lathrop never roused one to a fighting pitch, but then fighting was not her method. (Nor was it mine. I have always hated conflict of any kind, but with me this led to cowardice, to shirking unpleasantness. Never with her.) She taught me a much-needed lesson, that harmony and peaceful relations with one's adversary were not in themselves of value, only if they went with a steady pushing of what one was trying to achieve.

So often, when I have succeeded in breaking down the hostility of an employer and in establishing a friendly relation with him, I have been tempted to let it go at that, to depart without risking unpleasantness. Then I have remembered Julia Lathrop and have forced myself to say the unpleasant things which had to be said.

Exploring the Dangerous Trades, Alice Hamilton, 1943.

Following are real examples and case histories illustrating the need for pointed questions and preparation to provide clear, helpful, and doable answers and solutions.

#1 Why Does This Condition Exist?

Every safety professional must keep in mind, once searched for, these conditions do not go away for they are a symptom of a system in failure. For example, you can still find a large crane, operating, missing its anti-two block. This critical device was overlooked because the operating system for the crane readiness was weak. When one of your "Top" items is found, you must go back to why it was missed and share that with everyone. One fundamental concern is the tendency to "get past" a condition when it's found, when in fact this is a huge opportunity for elimination of the hazard and to tighten the system.

Click to see crane with anti-two-block installed.

#2 Did You Look Overhead?

The Underground Facilities Protection Organizations (UFPO) has a fantastic system operating across the United States. This UFPO number has a one-call center (811 remarking guys) where anyone can call and request remarking of utilities that might lie underground. Countless lives have been saved by this utility funded organization; however, though the underground utilities are marked out in colorful paints, you must also look up when walking your projects, looking for hazards that are just as deadly. This crew is "picking" directly under these armed hazards. This type of risk taking should be criminal. Click to see picking under utility lines.

#3 Did You Look under Your Feet?

As important as what's overhead is what is under your feet. Having investigated over 46 utility strikes, I used to scoff at the cost (about $2,300) to repair a simple service line to a home struck by one of our backhoes. I would watch the utility crew at work with their fire-suits and one fellow standing by with a fire extinguisher and shake my head at the bill that was coming. Until one day when I read that such a crew had died while trying to fix a similar break in another town. From then on, I was scared to death when the call came in that we had hit a gas line. When the incident was downplayed—"It was just a service line" or "It's a low-pressure line … no worries," I worried even more since the crew in the field did not understand that what they did, or didn't do, could kill good people.

Use the 811 system, use it religiously, and if you are ever unsure of what the underground world has in store, take a "Pause for the Cause" and get back out there to check it out.

#4 Why Did the Lights Go Out? What Now?

A great test of emergency readiness at a project is to put the superintendent in the basement of his building and say, "Someone just hit the pole out front of the building, and the lights are out for a couple of hours. You have 60 nice workers down here that need to find their way out. What is the plan?"

If you are renovating a movie theater (never a window) or doing "bottom-up" construction in the Northeast, you must plan for emergency lighting. A simple fix is battery-powered exit lights that can be installed as the work proceeds. These range from $23 to $65, and is money well spent. A project manager once commented that on his job, the lights in the basement went out, and the only guy with a flashlight led crews of five at a time out of the building. He soon heard from the other 40 workers who had to wait.

#5 How Fast Can Someone Get a Fire Extinguisher and Bring It Back?

Firefighters are taught a that fire doubles in size each minute it is not extinguished, so having a charged fire extinguisher (FE) close by is critical. Take a walk across your site with the safety manager, superintendent, shop steward, and foreman. When you wander into an area where you do not see a FE, simply look at your watch and mention to no one in particular, "I just spotted a fire! Go get an extinguisher!" Someone is bound to ask "Now?" So take the time to nod, and work on your listening skills. You should expect a charged can to return within 19 seconds. Why 19 seconds? Because if you walk fast you can cover 34.5' (typical maximum distance between fire extinguishers is 75') and return. The point is to ensure FEs are easily seen and placed in a location like the top of a stairwell or elevator lobby so anyone can find one fast.

#6 Ask "If He Falls and His Gear Works, How Do You Get Him Down?"

Consider the fellow in the photo in Figure 3. His ladder gave him access to the area (he was installing a lightning rod) but if he fell to the outside, he would be 17-floors up and have to hang there until he lost both his legs from lack of circulation—that is, if someone saw him fall. There may be few questions more important to ask than this one.

Click here for photo of falling on the opposite side of the wall.

#7 "Hey, You on the Roof! Do You Know the Building Is on Fire?"

You should be scared of two things when buildings are under construction: fire and wind. Both have the capacity to kill good people, damage the palaces we build, and hurt people we do not know. Granted, many fires start on roofs, but there are plenty of examples where fire starts in the lower levels of a building, and fire always goes up. How do you let the people on the roof know of the danger? Yell up to the workers to stop the work and come down. Work your way to the roof and test that emergency plan, and you will see how ineffective that tactic can be. Many firms are now installing annunciators at all levels of the building so when the alarm sounds in the basement, everyone know there is trouble everywhere.

#8 Ask a Rigger and the Crane Operator before the Lift, "How Much Does that Weigh?"

Many safety professionals have a misplaced deference to competent persons. Until competency is proven, the danger of the "taxicab" mentality is present. When you jump into a cab, you expect that the driver will be sober, licensed, and knowledgeable of the traffic laws and area. We never ask; we trust.

The best gauge of professionals working on a crane crew is the set up: solid dunnage and outriggers fully deployed and on a solid surface. If these fundamentals are not met, stop the work.

Click to see crane outrigger on uneven surface.

Then ask the two most valuable people responsible for the most dangerous piece of equipment on your site, "How much does that weigh?" If the rigger and operator point to the boss, at each other, or appear unsure at any point, get a new crew. If a crew is unsure of what they are lifting, then they are used to taking risks. If the answers are honest, complete, and accurate, thank them and explain why you asked.

#9 Are All Accidents/Incidents Avoidable?

One the best life lessons I ever learned, I had to watch. A top safety engineer, working for the owner, asked my safety director "Do you think all incidents are preventable?" My guy answered, "Well, we might get cuts and bruises, but it's construction." I had to replace him the next day, and took over the job for several months. In retrospect, that's like telling the young man who picks up your daughter for her first date to "be as careful with her as you can." If someone, in particular a manager of risk, does not believe any work can be done safely, you have a significant weakness in your system.

#10 "Is the Temporary Fire Riser (Standpipe) Working?"

With the exception of the crane incidents in the United States several years ago, few events have put safety managers on the spot like the 2007 firefighter deaths in New York City. It is alleged that, unknown to a city fire crew, a temporary riser for fire hoses had been disconnected so when they tried to fight a fire on a construction site in a 41-story building, disaster struck.

4 indicted in deaths of New York firefighters

Negligence alleged in fatal blaze at ground zero tower

December 23, 2008|By Associated Press

New York—Three construction supervisors and a subcontractor were indicted Monday on manslaughter charges in the 2007 deaths of two firefighters at a skyscraper that once housed Deutsche Bank at the 9/11 ground zero, but the city was not charged in the firefighters' deaths.

I have asked this question many times in many states since, and received answers ranging from:

"The fire company comes by each month and walks the system."

"Test the standpipe? We have to do that?"

"Can't test it—the water would freeze up over the winter."

"Actually it's always under pressure, and if somehow we lose pressure, my pager goes off."

While protecting a building under construction is important, it's just as important—or more so—to protect the firefighters who help in the event of a fire or disaster. Due to the Deutsche Bank fire described above, the issue of personal accountability and responsibility has taken the forefront in fire prevention when it involves temporary protection, e.g., fire standpipes or exit routes. Everyone should be familiar with the circumstance of this fire.

If you should ask this question during an audit (and it would be difficult to defend why you did not), and there is no system to confirm the standpipe is intact, stop the work and get it squared away. It is that critical to you, your firm, and some good firefighters. There are systems on the market or ones that can be designed to keep this system available so the fire guys can "put the wet stuff on the red stuff." For a better understanding, go to Local Laws of the City of New York.

If someone notes that it is not yet code in the area, consider the implication of not making the correction. Precedent has been set, and not to install hazard prevention system that is well recognized for being effective is indefensible and will likely be seen as negligent.

Click to see inadequate pressure in a standpipe system.

Conclusion

Finally, it is important to "Show and Tell" what you learned on your inspection. I suspect if you asked 100 site engineers and superintends what an anti-two block (ATB) is, perhaps 40 percent would know. Telling someone what an ATB looks like is like eating grapes in the dark and just as dangerous. My challenge to you is to develop your own Top 10 and have your site superintendents craft the same. Like people who have a taste for country music, it is hard to understand, but you must recognize we all hum different tunes. A superintendent's focus is critical for a site safety coordinator to know, and this is a great way to understand what he looks for. And remember, if you can use a photo or better yet the actual device (like a tattered lifting strap) takes advantage of that. Share your list with your insurer so it can support or add to your focus. I once had a team of great people put together a preplanning guide, and they had inserted example photos next to the item that was being discussed. A manager removed all these photos before allowing the document to be released. The result was very few used it.

And do remember to drill down to the cause that allowed the hazard or danger to exist. A safety friend of mine once spent the better part of his year planning out a project to ensure hazards were eliminated and all efforts were exhausted to prevent any incident. The job was completed with a perfect record, a very happy client, and a safety manager who decided to take what he had learned and share it at a professional conference. But when he asked his manager for approval, the response was "Don't you have something new to present?" A huge opportunity to learn and share success was lost, and this guy's motivation dissipated. This is because the manager wanted to simply "get past something learned," and not drill down to the cause—and that limits success.

Sharing of best practices is one of the nine top elements that successful firms incorporate into their safety efforts. If you are curious about the other eight, just drop me a line.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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