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
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
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
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
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
#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.
Figure 1: 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.
Figure 2: 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
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
#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
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.
Figure 3: Danger: Falling on the Opposite Side of the Wall, Where the
#7 "Hey, You on the Roof! Do You Know the Building Is on
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
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
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.
Figure 4: 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
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.
Figure 5: Inadequate Pressure in Standpipe System
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.