Safety 101: A Contractor's Perspective

The issue of safety during a campus construction or renovation project extends from the construction team members themselves to students, university staff, and the general public. Taking these distinct populations into consideration helps to frame the project with safety as the number-one priority.

With activities on most college campuses occurring year-round, there are many instances in which construction must occur while school is in session. Therefore, safety in and around a university construction site takes on a whole new level of importance.

The critical concepts to consider when mapping out a comprehensive approach to safety fall into three main categories: planning, communication, and security. By making safety a priority at all levels, contractors can create a safe and successful campus project site while meeting all university objectives.

Planning
Thorough and accurate pre-planning is critical on any construction project. As such, understanding a project’s scope is an essential first step in the construction process. Holding orientations for workers prior to them actually going to work on the site is an effective way to map out project-specific items needed. During orientation, campus specifics can be discussed, including but not limited to approved and restricted facilities for worker-usage and specific university events scheduled during the project. In addition, creating and maintaining a detailed schedule throughout a project’s life ensures accountability and assists with keeping projects on time and on budget. Schedules should include finals week, commencement ceremonies, and other major university events. The tie-in to major events keeps the building team, university, and community representatives connected during the project.

A new tool showing great promise during pre-planning is Building Information Modeling (BIM). Most commonly used to create a 3D model of the project, sophisticated builders are now incorporating the project schedule into this model to display the sequence of construction through time. With this process, builders can identify potential issues ahead of time, resulting in a safer and more efficient construction process.

Minimizing the impact on pedestrian traffic is another aspect to consider on a campus build. During construction, the primary goal is to keep campus activity flowing normally. Provisions must be made to re-route pedestrian and vehicle traffic to accommodate students and faculty. It is important to take into consideration the safety and viability of any traffic detours, as students and faculty often travel the paths during both daytime and nighttime hours. Congested project sites can also create material deliveries and storage challenges. Carefully orchestrated just-in-time delivery of materials is a proactive way to minimize traffic disruption.

The Parker H. Petit Science Center at Georgia State University serves as an example of a campus build that required detailed and strategic planning due to its urban location in downtown Atlanta. Neighbored by a public transit station, a local hospital, and the Georgia state capitol, the construction team had to carefully map out traffic-flow patterns to ensure pedestrian safety. Through careful planning and coordination, the team implemented security fencing, continuous gate access supervision, and traffic control to mitigate safety concerns. Communication with local officials also helped ensure a safe and protected jobsite.

Communication
Where planning is key, communication is king. Developing a clear communication plan for both day-to-day construction activities and possible emergencies is an important first step. This plan should include regular meetings with the appropriate university personnel to keep them informed of all current and planned construction activity. In addition, an avenue for dialogue with local officials, including local law enforcement and emergency responders, should be developed in the event that the project needs assistance. This reach should extend to include the student body, faculty, and surrounding community through written newsletters, town hall meetings, and project Websites. Clearly communicating key project milestones and significant construction activity will keep campus users informed and support the project’s safety objectives. Keep in mind that the project is being built in “their space,” and with changes often come potential safety concerns.

The team on Cornell University’s Physical Sciences Building project, slated for completion in November 2010, exemplifies what being a good neighbor truly means. With buildings adjoined to the site, the building team had to be mindful of vibrations, noise, and dust that could disrupt active research projects. To manage these potential challenges, the team held weekly “impact meetings” with adjacent occupants and Cornell construction managers prior to the beginning of construction. To keep students and staff updated on construction information, a weekly vibration map is published to identify areas and levels of vibration, with a “two-week look ahead” narrative for construction activities. Taking advantage of existing communication channels, the University also utilizes a project Website for any and all interested parties. This site contains general project information and a construction schedule, floor plans, and a project overview.

Emergency Action Plans
Even on the most carefully engineered projects, incidents can happen. Because of this, a safety-conscious construction company should also have an emergency action plan in place for working with the university, media, and the community should an unforeseen event occur. The plan should identify an individual from within the construction company who will be responsible for answering questions and detailing how they will coordinate with the university in the event of an incident.

The Student Academic Services Center at University of California, San Diego serves as another example of an effective proactive and direct communications campaign program. Starting early on with the University, the team routinely addressed the needs of the faculty and students through an outreach program, meeting with the student body and faculty to ensure that their needs were being met. Through continued communication, the team was able to safely and productively accommodate traffic requirements for the students without compromising the safety and timeline of the project.

Security
Operating on an active campus may present a number of security challenges, and each is as unique as the campus itself. With both workers and the public in mind, there are specific security measures that should be considered to ensure a secure environment.

Site signage is one important element of project security. Developing and maintaining proper signage surrounding the site, including on equipment, is essential to clearly mark the construction zone areas and minimize potential hazards.

The student population itself can also present unique challenges to site security. Risks of vandalism and trespassing may increase, leaving the site more vulnerable. Or, controversy over planned use of a new building after completion may raise security concerns. To address concerns like these, universities should consider utilizing perimeter fencing and debris netting. In some cases, 24/7 security camera surveillance systems and additional on-site security from private companies may be necessary. Finally, it may be appropriate to work in conjunction with outside agencies to address specific security and safety concerns.

Safety First, Last, Always
While every campus presents its own set of unique challenges, maintaining a safe jobsite remains the number-one priority for all parties involved on a construction project. Through strategic planning, communication, and security, contractors and owners can work hand-in-hand to eliminate potential hazards and risks. The examples in this piece highlight the diverse range of safety measures needed to ensure a safe campus and underscore the fact that on any size project, safety should always come first.

Kevin W. Kuntz is the Southeast Division president of McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. (www.mccarthy.com). As one of the top five education builders in America, McCarthy has repeatedly been recognized as one the nation’s safest contractors. Kevin can be reached at 770/980-8183 or kkuntz@mccarthy.com.

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