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Construction Safety

Determining a Construction Site's Character

TJ Lyons | December 20, 2019

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Construction workers shaking hands

I have likely visited over 400 projects in my career. Big and small, each has a character (not a culture) you pick up right away. If you take the time to listen and look for a site's character, you will gain an understanding of how much leadership cares about safety—and those who work there.

This article offers some tips you can use as an audit for gauging a site for its care and "character"—to search for the best practices you hope to see. To gauge character, we first have to define it. How do you feel when you arrive on the site? What opinions do you form as you walk the construction site and from listening to those running the show?

We all have that one friend or uncle who will say the oddest and perhaps the sweetest things. You listen and see how he handles himself, what he says, and how he looks. For ages, humans have appraised others based on one thing: would you be willing to let this guy into your cave for the night? You would never describe that uncle as "he is such a culture," but you would certainly describe him to others as "a real character." That's how I characterize a work site.

Walking a construction site is like visiting relatives for Christmas. When you arrive, you will be welcomed. You will most likely overhear some bickering, but you know the occupants love each other. Same with a construction site. Is safety an operational concern, or does "safety" take care of safety? This is critical to know and easier to determine than you think. A great example: after your site walk, does the project manager ask, "Well, what did you think of my ?" That is what you want to hear. If he doesn't ask, that's what you need to know.

Here is a list of those little things on a construction site that speak loudly. The more important ones are shown in italics.


Who checks you in? Is that a safety function, or does the operation team oversee visitors?

Did your contact meet you and say, "Let's meet when you clear the drug test and orientation?"

To get a badge as a visitor, was there any discussion of the site's safety expectations?

Were you required to provide proof of drug testing?

Was a separate orientation required by the general contractor and the owner, or just one offered up?

Was the orientation presented by the safety person for the site, or was it a video fired up and lights dimmed?

During the orientation, was hands-on equipment like tool tethers, fall protection equipment, and broken tools used to explain what right and wrong looked like?

Did someone from the operations team, such as the project manager, welcome you during the orientation?

Were you asked to sign a letter or poster of safety commitment during orientation?

Did you receive a summary to remind you of the "site rules" in a booklet or wallet card?

Did those presenting offer you their card or contact information so you could reach out at any time?

Did the person speaking share their background and goals for the site safety efforts?

Was the lanyard for your badge clipped or tear-away in design? Small things are important.

Were you free to roam after orientation, or did you need to wait for your contact to be escorted?

The Trailer

This could be a portable trailer(s), a rented house across the street, a small office-like shipping container, a portion of building already completed, or a lower finished floor.

Is there a tool or device to scrape the snow and mud off your boots outside the entrance?

When you enter, did someone greet and guide you to your destination?

Was the office empty of people, allowing you to free-range examine purses, letters, and computers?

Can you easily see those Occupational Safety and Health Administration posting and state wage posters?

Are there hard hats, gloves, and safety glasses hanging ready for visitors?

Was there a sign for an automated external defibrillator, and is one truly hanging there?

Is the floor a dusty mess or clean?

Can you spot a fire extinguisher or a sign pointing to one?

Is there a smoke alarm over your head?

Most important, is there a coffee pot?

Are there EXIT signs where you can leave, and EXIT sign where you should not?

The Site (Not What's Being Built)

Is there a badge reader and turnstile for site access with personal protective equipment reminders before you head in?

Is there a comfortable place for the workers to rest and have a break?

  • Is it warmed or cooled as needed?
  • Is there enough light to see what you are eating and reading?
  • Is the floor dirt, or something you would want to walk on?
  • Is there a spot for workers to store their lunch pails in the morning for breaks later?
  • Are there any posters or indications recognizing individuals for anything?
  • Are there picnic tables outside for those that want some sun?
  • Is there a spot for smokers? Are the cigarette butts on the ground or put out in a container?

Are the roads around the site paved or stone or muddy and dusty?

When you walk from building to building, is the walkway well lit and paved or stone?

If there is traffic crossing where you walk, is there a sign or warning to you and the vehicles?

If you see scaffolding overhead for pipe rack or against structures, is it shrouded with nets to keep people and things inside?

Are vehicles backed into parking spaces?

Is there temporary area lighting outside for those early morning pours and long days?

The Structure—What's Being Built

Is there a tool or device to scrape the snow and mud off your boots outside the entrance?

If there is a door, is it self-closing?

Is there a window cut into the door for light and to avoid hitting someone on the other side?

Does the door swing out into the wind?

Is there an entry mat inside the door to clean your soles of mud and water?

When you enter, is there a trash can right there to toss your coffee cup?

On the inside of the door, does it say EXIT?

Is the area lit by LED lights or older fluorescent or metal halide lights?

At first glance, does it look very, very clean? It should surprise you.

The Structure—Let's Go Up a Level

Are you using stairs or climbing a muddy, wooden, or fiberglass ladder to get there?

  • Are treads in stairs filled with concrete or temporary wood?
  • Are the handrails made of wood or wire rope or prefabricated metal sections?
  • As you climb, do you see boards along the bottom of the floor above so stuff cannot fall on you and the others in the stairwells?
  • If there are wooden rails, are the nails used double-headed to catch your wedding ring or new jacket?
  • Is there a handrail on the stairs for people going up and a set for those heading down?

Is there a trash container at the stair entrance (base) when you went up and another on the next floor when you exited?

Turn around and see if there is an EXIT sign over the entrance to the floor you just walked through.

Did someone spray paint or hang a sign letting you (and firefighters) know what floor you are on?

Walking the Floor

These areas change by the day, protection is removed for bringing things up through floor openings, and people will steal handrail lumber for their special projects. It's critical to look for consistency and competency here to make sure good people don't fall down your shafts.

Floor Openings—Big Ones

Are there openings in the floor for elevators, ducts, and people to fall in surrounded by metal rails, wood with nails and splinters, sagging wire rope with steel posts, or prefabricated metal railing sections complete with mesh?

Look down in the shaft. Has a cargo net or other netting been installed across to catch debris and workers in a fall?

Is there a board around the entire opening or netting secured to the concrete to keep things from rolling off the floor into the shaft?

Is anything stored leaning against these rails or within 10 feet of the opening?

If cables are used for railings, are they tight to the touch, or can you see a sag?

Are the corner posts bent in from shoddy construction and ongoing attempts to tighten the cable?

Are the cable clamps installed on wire rope railings secured with at least two cables? Take a moment and ask the installing contractor if they torqued the cable clamps when they were installed and if they are oriented in the right direction. If the contractor looks confused, that is your answer.

Floor Openings—the Little Ones

Are there any openings that you could fit a tennis ball in?

Are floor openings covered with particleboard, boards, Styrofoam, or by manufactured covers?

If the opening is large enough for boards or plywood covers, does it look safe to stand on, and is it marked HOLE or OPENING?

Are the covers you see secured so they do not move when kicked?

Look up at the floor above you. Does the next shaft have mesh across to protect those below from debris and workers in a fall?

From where you are standing, can you see an exit (or sign) and a fire extinguisher?

Go to the middle of the floor and surprise your host. Ask him or her to go grab the nearest fire extinguisher as you look at your watch. Do not discuss the idea; do not explain. Just wait, and look at your watch. If it takes more than 20 seconds for them to return, that's a great lesson.


The information gathered from simply looking around shows you a site's character—the level of detail and care only a good project manager and crew can create.

You will notice that I did not ask to check if everyone was wearing his or her safety glasses or gloves. That's important, but not so much. When someone falls down the shaft because the cable could barely support the plywood leaning against the rails of the shaft, his wife will not be asking, "Well, at least tell me was he wearing his gloves before the fall." We must look closer at conditions ... not just compliance.

The next commentary will focus on gauging the people who do our bidding and our building—capturing their character.

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