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Construction Safety

Initial Assessment Site Assessments (Part 2)

Ron Prichard | December 1, 2001

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Workers looking at construction site with binoculars

In this article, Ron Prichard examines the questions that need to be asked during an initial construction site assessment to determine how the site is meeting both safety and development goals.

In part 1 of this series, we examined the "infostructure": the underlying concepts behind the assessment process. This installment will examine the application of this model in performing an initial site assessment.

Tackling a First Visit to a Site

The initial visit to a construction site always initiates more questions than any subsequent visit. Also, the scope of inquiry is broader. This does not mean, however, that if new safety issues arise on subsequent visits, that the scope of inquiry cannot be broadened.

In the initial visit, the main goal is information collection—gathering information about the basic scope of the project. This creates the "base case" for the project, against which the state of affairs on subsequent visits is compared. Initially, the base case is project data is compared with a project standard to gauge the team's application of Ashby's First Law of Systems: A project must start properly if it is to finish properly.

The lead members of the project team should be the primary source for information. By setting the priorities for work and directing the course of events, these lead members set the stage for project outcome. Their sense of what they have to do, and the resources available to them to accomplish it, are instrumental in driving the project. While it is important for the subordinate members of the project delivery team to have a full and sufficient understanding of the mission, their errors can, usually, be easily corrected by the lead project team members.

The purpose of the initial assessment is to gather enough information to develop a complete, comprehensive picture of the project. This preliminary picture forms the basis against which the assessments on subsequent visits are compared to detect improvement or deterioration. Indications of deterioration can serve as clues for investigation. Project success depends on early detection and correction of problems while the costs (in terms of time and resources) are low and before the problem becomes difficult to resolve. Thus, the assessor examines many aspects of the project, and makes two determinations. The first is the existing state and its relationship compared to a best practices standard. The second is to project into the future, an expected state, where the job should be at the next checkpoint.

On subsequent visits, the assessor evaluates the progress of the project team. This includes determining that the project purpose is still on track. Next, the assessor determines what changes have occurred in the project since the last visit. The focus is to identify those elements that have changed, how they have changed (e.g., what is the trend of the change), and the reason for the change (e.g., what drove the change). This lets you hone in on key indicators of emerging strengths, of growing risks and difficulties, and of potentially serious problems.

How the team sees its own progress-both in identification of issues and their proposed solutions-provides insight into the team's problem-solving methods and management decision-making processes. A construction project is an open system. This means that it is affected by events in the surrounding environment, not just occurrences on the project itself. Thus, team awareness of what is happening on the job and off is crucial. The context of the project is dynamic and changing, and the project approach must be evolving, based on feedback, if it is to achieve its stated purpose.

The Key Elements

The key tool in performing the site assessments is the standard question base. This is built from research and refined over the course of use in the field. The question set is never complete; modifications must be made based on what is seen or heard during the site visit. There are seven key elements to be considered over the project assessment. Not all elements need to be evaluated each time the project is visited, but the more information gathered, the better the diagnosis.

These elements and their essential functions are as defined below:

  1. Design

    Translation of vision into defined goals

    Completeness and documentation

    Complexity Coordination of systems

    Value engineering and constructability

    Consideration of environment Special materials and equipment

    Particular features or performance specifications

  2. Project Field

    How do people talk about the project?

    What do they say about the project progress?

    What do they say about other project team members?

    How does the job appear?

  3. Project Structure

    Owner information

    Project resources

    Schedule and seasons

    Contracting strategy

    Contract language Contract administration process

    Roles, responsibilities, and authority

    Goals, expectations, and requirements

    Dispute resolution and change control


  4. Project Geography and Logistics

    Project location vis-à-vis workforce and key parties


    Adjacent facilities



    Regional market

    Site details

    Local building code officials and permits

    Site utilities

  5. Project Team

    Philosophy, approach, and autonomy

    Level of owner participation


    Number, knowledge, and experience

    Location and set-up


    Resources and support

    Knowledge and understanding of project requirements

    Craft labor source and supply

  6. Preconstruction Activities

    Contractor qualification

    Bidding process

    Selection and notification

    Project requirements review

    Premobilization activities


    Performance measures and other project controls data

    Site planning

  7. Course-of-Construction Events

    Project communications and information flow

    Team turnover

    Work coordination activities

    Progress monitoring

    Problems solving—identification and solution

    Project change management

    Payment process

    Project progress—actual versus anticipated

    Contract closeout process

    Commissioning, startup and turnover

Subsequent Site Assessments

The utility of these questions comes from compiling the information gathered into a coherent set of specifications. A pattern then emerges by comparing data obtained from previous visits. It's not the direct answers to the above questions that matter so much, as they represent raw data which, taken alone, point nowhere. Rather, it's the evaluation of the responses, gauged in context, which generates useful project assessments.

The full four-part series on site assessments includes:

An Informal Process of Questioning (Part 1)

Initial Assessments (Part 2)

Conducting a Site Assessment (Part 3)

Some Final Thoughts on Completing Site Assessments (Part 4)

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