Driving Safety to New Heights

Bridge and Transportation

By Luke Anear

The art of building bridges has existed for a millennium, with the oldest bridge dating back to 850 BC – a single arch slab stone construction that spans over the River Meles in Turkey. 

Fast-forward 2,166 years and bridge construction has come a long way. Today we are seeing bridges constructed in record time, and fewer lives lost than ever before. When the Golden Gate Bridge was built, it was normal in the industry to see one worker fatality for every $1 million spent on bridge construction. For most of the construction period of the Golden Gate, a new record had been set, with only one death until February 17, 1937, when ten workers died in one incident.

In 2016, building bridges is still dangerous work.  All infrastructure construction – bridges, tunnels and roads – pose distinct safety risks to workers. Working at high elevations, in close proximity to vehicles and working overnight all require safety precautions to ensure timely project delivery, quality work and, critically, maintaining safe job sites.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the United States has more than four million miles of roads, including more than 47,000 miles of Interstate Highways. Most of the nation's roads and bridges were built more than 60 years ago, and are frequently in a state of disrepair, causing traffic congestion around major metropolitan areas and creating hazards for drivers throughout the country. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration says more than 20 percent of U.S. roads are in need of significant repairs, along with one in four U.S. bridges that are structurally deficient.

For construction and engineering firms in the civil sector, the poor performance and structural condition of the U.S. transportation infrastructure offers a significant opportunity, with hundreds of roads and bridges slated for urgent repair over the next few years. While this construction boom is great for business, it also means more workers are exposed to hazardous conditions as they upgrade bridges and build roads alongside existing thoroughfares.

Technology Solutions

In recent decades, the construction industry has introduced stricter standards and tighter laws to protect workers. In addition, new technologies are emerging that allow workers to have a greater impact and increased control over safety on the job site. With these tools, site managers can quickly and easily recognize and correct hazards before accidents happen.

Smartphones also are playing a role in improving safety, with information flowing faster between workers due to the quick transfer of knowledge being facilitated by these supercomputers in the workers' pockets.

However, even with the extra precautions and new technologies, research shows that the industry is still lagging when it comes to preventative safety. A recent study of western New York State revealed safety violations on more than 80 percent of construction sites that were inspected. While this represents a small geography, similar issues exist throughout the construction industry in the United States.

With support from management, civil construction managers can arm all workers from the back office to the front lines with the tools they need to protect workers and ensure their colleagues go home safely at the end of a long day on the job.

  1. Prevent falls. Bridge projects often involve workers performing tasks at high elevations, increasing the risk of falls. Bridgework requires tighter monitoring to ensure harnesses are being used correctly and workers have access to secure tether points throughout the entire construction zone. For all team members, pre-start checklists, quick hazard recognition, efficient reporting and communication are critical in preventing falls.
  2. Focus on traffic. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than 600 workers were killed in accidents on road construction and maintenance job sites in 2012. In part, many accidents on these sites are due to traffic in the surrounding areas. For drivers, additional signs, traffic control systems and frequent re-routing of roads can create additional hazards. Although the industry has seen a significant decline due to new safety standards and work zone laws, additional work is needed to decrease the number of fatalities and injuries. Managers and workers should conduct frequent audits to ensure workers are following safety procedures. Examples include using radios to communicate, avoiding blind spots, never working between trucks and trailers and creating safe zones with barricades.
  3. Prioritize protective gear. Although personal protective equipment might seem "old school" compared to today's technology, it remains a critical element when it comes to protecting workers. For managers and inspectors on transportation and bridge projects, ensuring all workers are correctly using their equipment is a priority. This includes taking frequent inventory of workers on site to ensure they are wearing head, face, foot, hand and hearing protection, and logging that information in the event of an accident, or to correct a worker from a potential hazard.
  4. Digitize checklists to advance accident protection. Today, there are many innovations that have drastically improved the safety of construction sites. With an app, workers can create checklist templates to track on-site safety, take photos and add diagrams or drawings to illustrate potential hazards, complete reports on the spot and export reports directly to their clients and managers. For those who previously relied on paper reports, mobile technologies eliminate the many hours spent behind the desk preparing reports, reducing the time it takes to complete a report from hours to minutes.
  5. Identify patterns through data. Mobile technologies allow easy review of the job site, simple data collection and efficient reporting so all workers are aware of safety efforts on the construction site. Because mobile technology and digitized inspections allow companies to aggregate reports and data, they also enable employees to identify specific patterns within that data. For example, are there specific job sites that need more follow-up than others? With dangerous infrastructure construction, it's invaluable to identify patterns and trends that could lead to injury or worse.

Having a safety and quality assurance process in infrastructure construction is paramount. With the enormous risks at bay, it's important to ensure that both workers and foremen alike are equipped with insight and tools they need to ensure jobs are completed on-time, on-budget and – most importantly – safely.

Luke Anear is CEO of SafetyCulture, creator of the iAuditor mobile auditing app.

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