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Construction Safety

Going Beyond the Appearance of Safety in Construction

TJ Lyons | June 23, 2023

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A few years ago, some dignitaries overseas were to visit a construction site. About half complete, this was a good project with very few injuries, with none of severity. I got a call from one of my leaders: "Dr. Noo will be visiting. I am worried about safety there, so can you make sure the workers are wearing their helmets and safety glasses?" The goal was that the visitor would see a "safe" site since everyone looked safe. Obviously, this appearance of safety did not represent genuine safety.

Too often, those that engineer a workspace have never worked in that workspace. That said, I must note the work done by Chris Golden of New York City. His work in safe building design resulted in the reengineering of structures throughout the city. Mr. Golden would spend time hanging out with the operators of facilities in New York and listen to their gripes and what they would like to see changed in their workplace. That ability to listen to those doing the work and making the changes they know would make a place safer had likely saved the lives of people Mr. Golden will never meet.

I have commented in earlier columns about our tendency to protect our workers rather than eliminate what was hurting them. Looking at unsafe design prior to construction is crucial. The time for incorporation of safety in construction is long before the design is set and the general contractor chosen. Following is a discussion of creating a structure where injuries are unlikely to happen, and visitors and occupants will not even notice those safeguards.

Vision and Concept Discussions with the Owner

The first and most important step is a straightforward conversation with the owner before the architect or engineer has been contracted. This is the general contractor or construction manager's chance to be seen as a leader, and that status starts at contractor interviews.

Today's savvy construction owner is well versed in designing for incident prevention and will be looking for your expertise. At a recent interview for a large university project, two of their questions were posed to my firm on how to protect the public visiting the campus and how we would design a building so later upgrades or renovations would be easier. Before responding, our proposed project team stepped up and asked the following.

  • What accidents have occurred in other campus buildings that you want to eliminate in this one?
  • Can we spend a day or two with your building maintenance teams to get their feedback?
  • Would you share the last few years of claims, both general liability and workers compensation, from the public and your staff for us to look over?

The client was pleased with our approach: our first step was to listen.

As a general contractor or construction manager, your role is to help owners understand the value of looking closer at how their building is to be built and later maintained, then focus on its cost. For example, look at this photo that I took at a building under construction. Lifelines had been designed and installed for those who would later be tasked with working on the roof and fixed anchors placed for window washing equipment.

Commercial building roof with lifelines and fixed anchors 1

The following are some observations that I've made.

  • Maintenance workers should never get closer than 15 feet to an unprotected edge like this roof. 2 By design, staff will break that regulation every time they approach this "safety" system.
  • This building in western Pennsylvania will routinely receive snowfall over the 1-foot height of the sloped parapet. You would not be able to see the edge of the roof as you clear the snow.
  • When a worker is dispatched to clear the ice blocking the drain, they will need to shovel snow to find this safety system before work can be performed. More than likely, a trip at the edge will show where the protection is buried.

This a great example for contractors and owners to discuss during their interview. The owner will ask for the solution, and the contractor will tell them to raise the parapet to a safe height and only leave the fixed anchorages for the window cleaners, then explain what the cost of the additional parapet height will be balanced against.

  • The money that is saved in fall protection system design work and the complex installation and inspection of the stainless-steel lifelines
  • Elimination of the 20 holes and patches in their roof that lifelines would provide for the life of their building
  • The cost of annual inspections of the lifelines for the life of their building
  • Elimination of a fall from the roof edge from anyone accessing the roof
  • The need to train anyone who needs to work within 15-feet of the edge of their roof in fall prevention and the cost of the fall protection gear needed
  • Their ongoing risk in hoping everyone from maintenance staff to technicians will take the time to anchor up when working on their roof (a hint: they won't).

Referencing "their" roof drives both ownership of the risk after construction and assigns some accountability in protecting others as they design the structure. During this initial conversation, it is important to provide solid examples of design ideas and why they are critical to consider. Generally, the owner will be listening for the costs involved.

Planning for Risk Elimination

To create the safest worksites and later a safe building to work in, one must listen to the past. Taking lessons learned from the past and incorporating them into a new design saves lives. Think of the auto industry and seat belts, Nader Pins, and the collapsible steering wheel. These inventions saved lives by design intervention. Take the time to meet with the client and design team to propose some conditions you would recommend, such as the following.

  • Brushed concrete surfaces on concrete to eliminate slips
  • Installing light fixtures in stairwells you can reach without a ladder so light bulbs can be changed safely
  • Full height parapets on roofs to eliminate the need to tie off and prevent falls
  • Installing skylights that will hold the weight of a person
  • Grates at building entrances to capture snow and walk-off mats into the building so people can clean off slippery shoes and boots
  • See-through panels on electrical switch gear to see if the gear is engaged rather than ask someone to suit up in clothing that will not melt to check
  • Valves for fire and sprinkler controls that can be reached from the ground
  • Warning lights on the exterior of electrical cabinets to indicate if they are energized

When you can successfully incorporate safety into the design, that's the appearance of safety.

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1 Photo by TJ Lyons
2 OSHA "29 CFR § 1910.28(b)(13)(iii)(A), when work is performed 15 feet or more from the roof edge, each employee must be protected from falling by a guardrail system, a safety net system, a travel restraint system, personal fall arrest system, or a designated area."