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Construction Safety

Construction Project Audits—Examples of Poor Practices

TJ Lyons | October 1, 2008

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Gauging a contractor's safety performance before walking on the project will give you a feel for the project and the team that will take you on the tour. This commentary is centered on what you should look for outside of the building and is no different from kicking the tires on a used car.

Remember two things before putting on your game face. First, the project team cares about what they are building and whatever you find and how you react will set the tone for the balance of that day and your long-term relationship with them. Second, each site craves both attention and the need to show-off what they have done. Remember the first and allow the second and you will get honest conversations and be able to gauge the level of risk management inherent on the project—but also the people that make it work. A clumsy start to this day will put up the "shields" faster than Captain Kirk on his Enterprise.

Following are guidelines for a risk manager to consider when evaluating a construction project. Some appear simple but all are critical.


Give your contact a call the afternoon before you arrive to get a feel for a good time to meet. Most mornings the safety staff or operations team will be tied-up overseeing orientations. Ask if you could sit in and get a feel for the level of detail. Do they just throw in a video, hope everyone understands English, and come back when the tape pops out?

The presenter must take the time to speak to the group and review specific hazards on the project. On great projects the superintendent will stop by and offer his views on site safety efforts and concerns he may have. This operational involvement is a clear indicator of the culture of the site.

Walking the Fence

The ability of a construction project to hurt people on the outside of the fence rarely is noted in many audits yet these general liability (GL) losses are often three to four times the cost of a workers compensation (WC) incident. So take the time to walk the entire perimeter of the project and look for these indicators.

  • Does the fence completely enclose the site? Unless it's a cattle range, it's reasonable to expect a fence surrounding the property. Anything less would be a bit negligent. The following image illustrates a fence that instills a hazard to the public.

    Fall Protection

    This construction fence protects a site but instills a hazard to the public as a result. Notice the fence stand in front of the woman's foot. This creates a trip hazard.

  • How is the public protected? Consider:
    • If a sidewalk is closed, does the alternative route allow for the disabled?
    • Is the "SIDEWALK CLOSED" sign in-place and at the right spot? Never expect the public to walk half down the block and be directed back to the corner. They will cut between the cars and take the risk—your risk.
    • Are the surrounding structures "tagged" with graffiti? If so, this is an active area at night and visitors should be expected after hours to remove the nice copper piping install that day.
    • Who are the neighbors? If hospitals do they have a rooftop helicopter pad—think about your crane operations, if a propane terminal—evacuation, if a school or car lot—dust control, condominium—noise complaints, etc.
    • Verify where contractors will enter and exit in cars, trucks, or on foot. Are there any wires over the exit waiting for a high load? Is there an active sidewalk underneath?
    • If streetlights are on the site ask if they will be removed and how will temporary lighting be installed. Again, remove public protection and negligence steps in.
    • Inspect sidewalk shelters. If lights are installed they should be fluorescent and sealed. The lonely light bulb is often taken by the passerby when he or she needs one at home.
    • Spend the time to make sure the sidewalk shelter is secure. These are often shrouded and a favorite target of high winds.
    • Lastly, as you walk, make believe you have had too much too drink, it's dark and raining, and you are heading home. Is there anything you can hit or trip over? The following photo was taken during a trip overseas. That is a razor sharp edge of a steel beam left over the weekend in one of the prettiest cities in the world. David MacCollum, an expert in safety, calls these "armed hazards."

      An armed hazard. Knife-like edge of steel column along sidewalk.

Look for indicators that something dangerous is buried under the site. In the following photo, this warning was installed exactly on the property line of a project. Several feet away a grader operator was having a nice day digging a road out. When asked how deep he was going and if there was anything in the area he pointed to the sign and said "Only that line over there." When it was explained "offset" means the hazard is set off from the sign, he seemed a bit nervous. It was later determined he was a few feet above this offset line.

Sign that says Warning Petroleum Pipeline

Warning signs may not clearly indicate danger.

The Building Entrance

As you walked the perimeter of the property you will have had a chance to check out the building. Regardless of the stage, there are several precautions that a great contractor will take to limit risk on their projects. Now is the time to stop thinking like Joey Public and put on your Builder Bud hat.

Data supports the fact that most people get hurt simply hiking around jobsites. So as you start the building tour, take a moment to walk around the structure. Here are a few things that a good contractor will have in-place.

Dedicated Walkways: Like sheep and kindergartners, clearly defined paths are best for herding. Take a moment to watch workers who might be arriving at the site. Are they forced to walk across equipment travel paths? Are they collecting mud on their shoes before heading into the building? Does it seem obvious where workers should enter the building? Look at each of the entrances and think of a carpenter coming in at dawn or leaving in the dark, or how well everyone will be able to evacuate when that propane tank next door starts to leak.

Several dedicated entrances should be installed complete with overhead protection. If you wonder how often stuff actually falls from buildings either live in New York City or look at the top of the entrance in the following photo. That is a brick and that is why entrance protection is so critical.

Overhead protection at building entrance under construction.

Lastly, consider what will happen to the walkways when it turns nasty. Ice and snow cause incredible injuries since those walking are often unprepared. When you leave a nice warm building, those toasty work boots become skates. When you tie that contributor to someone walking with their hands in their pockets to keep warm, the results are predictable. There are many options to eliminate these types of falls but open grating or covered walkways, though costly, will provide the best return on your investment. One of my safety friends once called to say that OSHA had just visited the site on a complaint and left in an ambulance. Yes, it was icy, and a broken shoulder was just the first pain felt on that project. The alleged concern—icy walkways. You can't dream this stuff up.

At this time in the walk you have likely spent an hour or so reviewing the GL exposure and the traffic flow of both people and equipment. So discuss with your tour guide two more areas before you head in. First, how is the building being loaded? Most material is lifted by fork truck to the first four or five floors onto loading docks and then over the rails, and often rails are taken down as the material comes in. Ask how the workers are protected from a fall receiving this material, for as you audit the floors, this will be a consistent exposure to monitor.

Second, ask how the site or building will be notified if an evacuation is needed. It is like looking for the exit in a new hotel. Regardless of how much building is up or how deep the foundation has been dug, an evacuation plan must be in place and exercised. If the idea seems silly to your guide, file that away but keep your eyes on the exits!

Perimeter Protection

Perimeter Protection

This is a perimeter cable designed to keep a worker from falling out of the building. However, one clamp (three are needed) will not carry the potential load should someone fall against it.

Crane Footing

Crane Footing

A crane must be absolutely level to be safe. This set-up invites the crane to slide, yet the operator was not aware of the condition.

Stairway or Scaffolding Support

Stairway or Scaffolding Support

Nothing is more critical to the support of a temporary stairway or scaffold than the footing. In this case, a shoddy installation by the supposed "competent person" introduced a potential contributor to an incident as it was constructed. In an emergency when many workers are running down the stairs, this would move and perhaps tip.

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