Staying Safe at the Construction Site

“We were working on a project where only seniors and some juniors were allowed to park on campus because of limited parking availability,” recalls Jim Devol, LEED-AP, CCM, a project executive with Gilbane Building Co., a nationwide firm that has a building arm that provides construction, consulting and pre-construction services to the education market, among others. “Because of project needs, the number of student parking spaces was reduced, which created a lot of consternation on the part of students and parents. So the students started parking on nearby streets, creating a traffic problem and crossing the street inappropriately.”

It is fortunate that there were no auto or pedestrian accidents. “It only takes one accident to ruin an otherwise successful project,” Devol says soberly.

As the example illustrates, when it comes to K-12 phased occupied construction, it is critical to keep students safe. However, students aren’t the only ones using the site — so are construction workers, teachers/administrators and visitors. “There are issues that are different for each of these building users,” Devol notes. “Students are our greatest concern, but we have to consider all users.”

Keeping everyone safe starts with communication. “A construction manager may have the best safety plan, and it might be perfectly clear to his people because they’re used to it,” begins Gary Hill, director of the K-12 Education Group for Turner Construction Co., Chicago. “But, if you’re a teacher or principal or student and haven’t been around construction before, safety doesn’t mean the same thing until it’s explained and incorporated into your way of doing things.”

That said, here are tips for keeping everyone safe — with a great number of them referring to the communication theme.

Construction Worker Safety

“If you’re taking care of everyone, there has to be a stringent safety program for the workers,” notes Devol. This includes four considerations. First, there has to be clear communication, so the tradesmen know when and where they can go and under what guidelines. “The first communication is in the bid process, so contractors know what the constraints are,” says Devol. “And the second communication is in an orientation so that they know the site constraints.”

Second, there are criminal background checks according to each state’s regulations. This is especially important on phased occupied renovations. “If you have to do criminal background checks,” says Devol, “have a rational discussion of what offenses are allowable and what aren’t. For example, would you reject a 50-year-old who stole a car when he was 19 but hasn’t had any offenses since then? Probably not. However, if he has violent crime in his record, you would automatically disqualify him.”

Similarly, different states have different opinions and policies about drug testing. “We use it on every job where the local jurisdiction allows it,” Devol notes. “It eliminates risk to the job and there are fewer safety issues with the tradesmen. It ensures a better-performing construction team. And, it keeps potential drug users and peddlers off the site, which also increases safety.”

Fourth, discuss photo identification badges during design. “We have a badge-making machine in the on-site job trailer,” Devol says. “We issue a provisional badge to someone who’s waiting on a criminal background check to be completed, and then issue a permanent badge once the check is completed.”

Finally, Turner Construction Co. prides itself on meeting and, in certain areas, exceeding, OSHA requirements. “We have a stringent plan to follow,” says Hill. “The policies are reviewed every week at foreman and contractor coordination meetings, so safety is always at the forefront.” He notes that it starts with small things like asking all workers to wear safety glasses and orange reflective vests all the time.

Visitor Safety
Visitors are numerous — parents, guest speakers, delivery people — and they may not be familiar with the site to begin with. So the first rule of order is way-finding signage to assist with changed parking and road/traffic patterns. “I see a fence which indicates where I shouldn’t go,” says Devol, “but I need a sign to tell me where I should go.” Be sure to take into account those visitors who may be bilingual.

In addition to signage, the job site must be fenced off to create a clear separation of all users from the work in progress. “In terms of outside safety,” says Nancy Nuttbrock, deputy director of Design and Construction for Wyoming School Facilities Commission in Cheyenne, “it needs to be secured and blocked off so that construction traffic is limited to designated areas and not co-mingled with student drop off.” This also helps set a clear boundary for people who are naturally curious and want to see what’s going on or for those who like to take shortcuts or have a poor sense of direction.

For some administrators, fencing around the construction site includes lights and security personnel at night. “Unfortunately, some people believe the construction site is a place to get additional materials for their house remodeling project,” points out Gary P. Jelin, AIA, vice president at TMP Architecture in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Student Safety

When it comes to keeping students safe, the ideal solution is to move them off campus for the duration of the construction project. “We’re doing a high school expansion project where the district has an empty elementary school adjacent to the high school,” explains Jelin. “So they have moved the classes that are closest to the addition to the elementary school to create a safety zone between the existing building and the new construction. Unfortunately, a lot of times school districts don’t have the time or the space to move the entire student body off campus.”

When that happens, “The area under construction has to be blocked off from non-construction areas so as to not allow student access,” says Nuttbrock.

The principal and construction manager must communicate to coordinate student activity and movement. “For instance,” says Jelin, “students may have to use a different door to go outside to the playground. It requires a lot of common sense.”

Building Occupant Safety

Communication and common sense are also key elements in keeping all building occupants safe. For instance, some products smell bad, which gives the perception that they are harmful, even though they aren’t. Jelin recommends communicating this to building users beforehand: “Tomorrow a product will be applied to the roof that smells bad but is not harmful.” It eliminates phone calls from worried parents.

The principal and construction manager must also communicate about if and when the facility may be used after hours by community groups. If so, it is important to coordinate those schedules with planned after-hour construction. You don’t want the contractor to be hoisting an HVAC unit on top of a gymnasium when a local basketball league has scheduled games in it.

Similarly, school administrators, the construction manager and local fire authorities must meet to review the fire-exiting plan. “If we have an addition attaching to the side of a school,” explains Hill, “we might be incorporating an area that is typically used as an emergency exit, so a new plan has to be created and communicated.” Then, fire and other emergency drills should be held during construction, so that everyone knows where to gather in an emergency.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a big issue when it comes to keeping building occupants safe during phased occupied construction. Devol has four tips in this area.

First, separate the buildings environmentally so that air supply and air exhaust in the construction zone is isolated from that in the occupied zone. Negative air pressure in the construction zone ensures that fumes don’t get sucked into the occupied zone. Well-built, sealed partitions also work to keep the dust out of the air before it comes in. “We use airlocks between areas so dust doesn’t migrate,” Devol explains.

Second, Devol recommends that baseline air testing is done before construction, while the school is occupied and probably during different seasons. “If you do this,” he points out, “you have the ability to compare IAQ tests throughout the construction process to the original. If you have a complaint, you can do a test to see if there has been a change because perception is reality when you’re doing school construction.”

Third, during design, the school administration should communicate preexisting health conditions for any building occupants, so those needs can be accounted for during construction. “For example,” says Devol, “on one project, there was a student who could not regulate his own body temperature.” The phasing plan would have eliminated air conditioning in one portion of the building for a period of time, which would have been a poor decision on behalf of that student. Because the construction manager was aware of the situation, he was able to install unit air conditioners in the rooms the student was occupying.

Similarly, Devol continues, on another project, there was a teacher who was hypersensitive to chemicals. Again, because the construction manager was aware of the situation, the teacher was assigned to a classroom that was both well filtered and away from the street for the duration of construction. “We also did IAQ tests before, during and after construction,” he says, “which allowed her to be and feel safe.”

Fourth, careful adherence to VOC requirements and specifications is recommended, including the checking of submittals against the actual materials brought on site and before their application. Also, it is helpful to take VOC measures before occupancy, just to be sure there aren’t any issues.

Communication is key to keeping everyone safe during an occupied construction project.

“We have to communicate with teachers, students, the board of education and the community as to what the plan is for all the logistics in order to keep us on the building side and them on the learning side,” concludes Hill.

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