Playing it Safe
Construction Sites and the Public
Many facilities cannot afford to cease operations while construction work is taking place, making coordination of projects a must. Tackling a large-scale construction project, such as a renovation or addition to an existing structure in spaces occupied by the public presents challenges. However, many parameters can – and should – be addressed far in advance.
Across North America, having proper safety policies and procedures on all construction sites is an absolute necessity. Fortunately, in Canada and the United States, construction safety is governed by numerous bodies such as the Ministry of Labour in the province of Ontario, the non-profit BC Construction Safety Alliance and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) under the U.S. Department of Labor.
These and other groups assist construction companies and workers to identify, reduce and eliminate construction-related hazards on everything from bridge erection to structural demolition, residential works and even large-scale painting jobs. The organizations address risks ranging from equipment falling from great heights to the dangers of asbestos and silica dust.
Workers’ rights, the responsibilities of employers, health and safety training, consultation services, resources, events and recognition for work well done reinforce the point that construction safety is not the responsibility of just some people; it is the role of a employers, supervisors and employees.
Construction and non-construction zones must be clearly indicated. These sites often have designated walkways cordoned off from the construction area by chain-link fences, hazard tape, orange pylons, flashing lights indicating off-limit areas. Signs warn passers-by of danger, stating ‘Hard Hat Zone,’ or ‘Authorized Personnel Only.’ Inside, signs are posted on interior corridors and by stairwells, elevators and exits.
To make this easier, cities such as Calgary, Alberta have created tools for builders, renovators and suppliers. The Residential Construction Safety Best Practices Guide, for example, provides valuable information on relevant acts, bylaws and regulations. It is focused on reducing job site accidents and discusses strategies for improving areas affecting public safety.
Guides such as these are important to ensuring community engagement as construction crews do not always work alongside the public harmoniously. In 2015 alone, the City of Calgary’s Safety Response Unit – a quick response team created to investigate construction site or building safety incidents – responded to a whopping 1,156 complaints regarding public safety and construction site safety issues. The educational Residential Construction Safety Best Practices Guide contains valuable information for homeowners and builders and is designed to improve communication and public safety through providing “an overview of principal areas of public, worker and property safety.” It has been endorsed by several groups, including the Alberta Construction Safety Association.
The issues in the guide – access, debris control, storage of materials, noise control, best practices for fencing and signage, excavation and trenching and more – apply to all construction projects, not just residential works. By participating in community outreach programs, proactively developing strategies to reduce risk to the public and responding promptly and professionally to citizen complaints, construction sites can be managed with a greater degree of safety for workers and the public alike.
Let’s face it: no one working in an occupied space under restoration or construction particularly enjoys the process. On one side, there are hallways or sidewalks blocked or rerouted. There are constant deliveries of building supplies and scaffolding everywhere. Roads and landscapes are often torn up to make way for sewer, water and gas lines. Odor from curing paint, varnish and other sealing products can be irritating. And then there is dust – seemingly endless clouds of dust – originating from a multitude of sources, ranging from cement dust to dirt kicked up by the tires of heavy construction equipment like bulldozers, backhoes and delivery trucks.
In occupied spaces under construction, it is a balancing act between temporary inconveniences – such as diverted access ways for students, teachers, hospital staff and other workers – and getting the job done in safety. If not addressed by safety supervisors, any work site can become a dangerous one. Hazards can be anything from improperly secured scaffolding to bricks, rocks, rebar and other constructions materials or debris left where the public can trip and injure themselves. Disruption needs to be kept to a minimum while safety must be maintained at its peak.
Whenever one reads of a house or other structure collapsing, it is usually the result of the job being taken on by amateurs or unlicensed contractors who didn’t consult structural engineers, obtain proper permits, or do the work according to code. In the worst case situation, part or all of the building collapses, causing not only irreparable damage to property but possible physical injury to workers or the public.
Underpinning reinforces the foundation of an existing building to ensure stability and is crucial to maintain the structure’s integrity if the foundation has decayed, or the basement is being lowered. Improper underpinning can shift a building or lead to total collapse.
To address challenges before they present a problem of that severity, effective planning of occupied sites is required. It often starts with examining the original design of an existing structure, which will assist construction crews, especially if a number of projects on the same grounds are being undertaken at the same time, as a hospital complex or university. This will assist with not only streamlining the building process but ensuring that deliveries of materials and equipment are carried out safely.
Along with planning long in advance, communication between construction companies and the public is essential. Plans must convey what work is being done and when it will be initiated and completed. Site access plans must include safety considerations as well as information about security, access, the timing of the project, utilities and more.
As simple as it may sound, designated construction zones must be marked and fences, gates, and other barriers put in place to separate development areas from pedestrian and public vehicle access. Other considerations, from milestone dates and the number of hours worked per day to potential hazards such as dust and noise, should also be outlined.
Successfully managed projects – especially in occupied spaces – are defined by simple, yet effective ongoing communication among all relevant stakeholders. With well-planned advance logistics covering all considerations, construction projects can take place effectively and with the highest possible degree of safety.
Designated walkways and roadways, properly illuminated areas, scaffolds, polyethylene plastic sheeting to control dust, signage, traffic cones – along with extensive planning and ongoing communication – will not only ensure projects meet scheduled timelines but result in safety for construction crews and the public alike.