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The Three-Step Process: Getting job-site safety right

By Jeff Gavin | May 14, 2024
The Three-Step Process: Getting job-site safety right
A new construction project means going to an unfamiliar location that brings site-specific challenges. To generate a safely run construction site, a safety site orientation, site walk-around and job-site review are a necessary and potent combo.

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Your safety program has buy-in across the firm? Congratulations. Safety management systems are in place? Terrific. Worker health is top of mind? Commendable. While all this and more play a role in keeping everyone safe on a work site, there is still a three-step process needed to ensure success for you and your fellow workers.

A new construction project means going to an unfamiliar location that brings site-specific challenges. To generate a safely run construction site, a safety site orientation, site walk-around and job-site review are a necessary and potent combo.

The orientation

Wes Wheeler, executive director of safety at NECA, said a safety site orientation prepares individuals for what they are going to be exposed to at the work site. It is more presentational and given prior to an on-site walk-around.

“If the initial orientation takes place at a central location (e.g., off-site classroom setting), it is usually conducted by the safety director or other office staff,” Wheeler said. “Conversely, if the initial orientation takes place on a job site, it is usually done by senior job staff, a superintendent and supervisor or somebody with extensive knowledge of that job site.” 

The size and scope of the project might dictate where the orientation is held.

The foundational guide for site safety will be the applicable OSHA standards/regulations on a federal and, in some cases, state level. Prior to a job orientation, crew members may have also gone through OSHA 10 or OSHA 30 construction training, and training as dictated in OSHA 2254, addressing topics such as wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), forklift authorization, drill operation, etc.

The safety site orientation will identify site layout and conditions as well as needed standards requirements. These could include exit routes and emergency planning; identified hazardous materials; occupational health and environmental controls; PPE; welding and cutting/hand and power tools; specific trade guidelines (e.g., electrical safety-related work practices, electric power generation and transmission and distribution); fall protection; and more.

“Orientations can’t be canned.
They must be job-site specific.”
—Justin Crandol, director of safety, SMACNA

 

“Orientations can’t be canned. They must be job-site specific,” said Justin Crandol, director of safety for the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), Chantilly, Va.

“For instance, data centers are very controlled by the owners. You can’t even have your phones in the space. In this case, more of the safety education must be done off-site. You educate yourself from that project’s construction process list to identify hazards and inform your safety requirements.

“We all know what OSHA standards are, but generally when you have large projects, you have ‘above and beyond’ safety item rules beyond OSHA,” he said. “You might have in place a process for checking in on a worker’s mental health. You might also see different safety items on-site. For instance, today’s bigger general contractors often have a 6-foot fall protection rule. Some even require fall protection at 10 feet to help protect laborers working off ladders.”

(Top) An orientation is the first step in learning what to expect on the construction project. (Bottom) A safe work site is only possible if you keep workers well informed, confident and engaged.

Alex M. Kopp, director of environmental health and safety for the Association of Union Constructors (TAUC), Arlington, Va., said, “When I think of safety and site orientation, I’m thinking about the groundwork contractors (the building trades) lay down for their employees, reviewing the individual tasks needed for that building project, tasks specific to that project.”

Kopp stated that being a consultant has allowed him to work with general contractors and different subcontractors across trades. He has worked as a contractor and once served as safety director for a subcontractor.

“From my experience when orientating workers coming on-site, I did them a couple of ways to see what resonated,” Kopp said. “With craft workers you wanted to hit certain points making them relevant to their craft. I also tried to be relatable, share a problem I faced and how it was resolved. Build a camaraderie between management and the craft worker, bond with them to foster a working relationship.”

Crandol added that, on big projects, work is typically done prior to the orientation through project meetings between the GC and each subcontractor. Here, parties review major hazards to the job and fine-tune the upcoming orientation.

Site walk-around

Once site hazards have been discussed in the orientation, a walk-around will serve as an illustration. “This step is so important because you are physically showing crew members the site hazards,” Wheeler said. “The walk-around also addresses site egress, access and non-access around the job site.”

Crandol added that all the trade contractors may do their walk-arounds together. 

“Each subcontractor may present the hazards as they see it from their trade perspective,” he said. “On-site, the owner, general contractor [and] maybe controlling manager take the lead and explain their site.”

Challenges differ from site to site

“There is not one size fits all when it comes to safety on a construction site, but it takes a general contractor that recognizes the diverse crews and what they are up against and the project,” Wheeler said. He cited a few examples.

“An industrial project may be focused on piping and welding and electrical circuits,” he said. “A wastewater plant may present standard workplace hazards such as slips, trips, falls, electrocution and ‘struck by,’ but also exposure to chemicals that can trigger skin sensitivities. Workers may be exposed to aerosols.

“In constructing a townhouse community in a densely populated area, overhead lines or underground lines must be considered,” Wheeler said. “You might have some power company distribution boxes. You do not want someone backing over a pad-mounted transformer. In construction work within existing buildings, for instance hospitals, you may be interacting with the public. Depending on the areas you are working in, you could also be exposed to hazardous waste and its incineration. In the production line of a chemical plant, you need to know when you can shut down power. Different settings can pose additional hazards that must be addressed.”

Job-site review

Wheeler explained that the third step—job site review—starts the moment the job begins on-site. This should be a continuous process assessing day-to-day hazards as they arise or may arise. It could be as obvious as a housekeeping issue, a tripping issue or wet locations. He added that supervisors typically lead the site reviews.

“In this day-by-day review, all workers may have input based on what they have seen or experienced,” Wheeler said. “These reviews must live through the length of the project. Most of what you are going to find are fall hazards, maybe exposed wiring and inadequate electrical protection or open holes (an OSHA requirement for open holes). Remember, you are at a site under construction. Certain areas of the construction site not previously
considered a confined space might become one and may require a permit for entry due to a new hazard.”

Kopp sees the job-site review and site walk-around as similar but still distinct. 

“It’s a walk-around but with the difference of individuals doing an evaluation, making sure that proper compliance and regulations are intact, making sure nobody’s doing the wrong thing. And making sure everybody has what they need to get the job done correctly, safely and on time,” he said.

If new safety hazards are discovered, remediation and a revision of the safety guidelines will be required. Crandol added that any hazard and actions taken should be shared with the entire project team, including what was learned.

Understanding the crew

There are underpinnings to making the three-step process successful. 

“I’ve seen a lack of understanding of the experience, skills and knowledge of the workers at the job site,” Wheeler said. “We can have high expectations but achieve low results if we do not know what each worker is bringing to the site.” 

This identification needs to be understood in the crew selection process.

“You have a crew made up of new employees or seasoned employees, and either may be new to tasks needed for that construction project,” he continued. “There is general orientation for everyone, but specific training may be needed on the job site.”

Some projects insert workers into industries that have their own safety requirements, such as railroad work. Here, Wheeler explained, workers must learn different train whistle blows indicating how far up a train is on the track.

“Site safety is a collective effort,
not one simply left to a supervisor or
an owner representative who might
not set foot on a job site.”
—Alex M. Kopp, director of environmental health and safety, TAUC

 

Watching out for each other

Kopp emphasized that site safety is a collective effort, not one simply left to a supervisor or an owner representative who might not set foot on a job site. 

“The whole construction team should have knowledge of what’s going on in the field,” Kopp said. “By getting the subcontractors involved, you help build that safety culture and buy-in.

“I don’t care if you’re a pipe fitter, an electrician, you’re going to look out for each other,” Kopp said. “If a pipe fitter needs to add a pipe rack over top of an electrician’s work area, the pipe fitter must let the electrician know. That work area may need to be temporarily closed for the installation. 

“If you aren’t communicating and looking out for each other, you risk the job being shut down and timelines and deadlines being pushed. Even worse, safety can be comprised, resulting in an incident, possibly fatal to someone.”

All three safety experts agree a safe work site is only possible if you keep workers well informed, confident and engaged.

“A solid orientation, site walk-around and site review go a long way in achieving a safe work site,” Wheeler said.

WEsley l. Wheeler

About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].

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