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The Business Side: Avoiding Tragedy

April 19, 2000
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Working jobs along highways--particularly interstate projects--is by far the most dangerous.Possibly as many as one surveyor is killed on the road every week in the United States.

This photo of Eric Thompson and David Silon mourning the loss of a fellow crew member is one of the most heart-wrenching pictures I have ever seen. It appeared in my local newspaper Nov. 10, 1999. Carolyn Montross, 40, a mother of two from Nevada, was run over and killed by a truck while working on a survey crew on Interstate 95 near Fort Pierce, Fla. The graphic result of a very tragic accident brings to mind the responsibility of company owners and managers to ensure employees have a safe work environment. While I do not know the details of this accident and am surely not assigning any blame for what happened, looking at company safety is always prudent. So, let's take a look at what you as owners and managers need to provide your employees.

The responsibility for safety has to come from top management in every company. The field employee without supplies and training has very little chance of implementing an effective safety program. I will be the first to admit that it does cost money to implement a good safety program, but the returns are many. Your first goal should be much like the doctor's creed: "Do no harm." I like to take this one step farther: "Get no one killed." Over time all companies have their share of employee scrapes and bruises. Employees commonly cut themselves while sharpening tools, suffer minor falls and twisted ankles. However, the accidents I would like to focus on are the more life-threatening occurrences.

Dangerous Situations

Working jobs along highways--particularly interstate projects--is by far the most dangerous. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), 57 engineers, architects or surveyors (surveyors are not classified by themselves) were killed in transportation-related accidents in 1995. We can guess that the bulk of those fatalities were surveyors, as they are more likely to work along the road than engineers or architects. That statistic means that possibly as many as one surveyor is killed on the road every week in the United States.

As some of you know, I travel to many different parts of the United States, mainly by car. I am surprised and sometimes shocked to see surveyors working along the roadside without safety vests or traffic control signs of any kind. Many states have recently raised their speed limits, not only on interstate highways, but also on secondary roads. We all know that most people drive 10 mph over the speed limit, which means that vehicles are passing within 5' or less of the survey crew members at 80 mph. Most people would not stand in the middle of the Indianapolis Speedway and have race cars speed by within 5'. Yet some surveyors do this almost daily. In fact, a friend of mine who is a college professor with a doctorate in transportation told me that surveyors develop an "I dare you to hit me!" attitude.

The second most dangerous situation I have encountered as a company owner is traffic accidents involving company vehicles. Many times crews are traveling late at night or early in the morning. Conditions such as fog, rain, snow or road construction can contribute to these accidents. A worst case scenario is to have an employee involved in an accident while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. (A good reason to do some checking on driving safety records before hiring employees.)

The third dangerous situation we subject ourselves to is working around construction sites. The dangers around a construction site are varied and many. Any time you put a large group of people in a very confined space, all having a different mission, you are bound to have conflicts. Some of the dangers include heavy equipment conflicting with power lines, both underground and overhead; lack of oxygen in confined spaces, such as manholes and underground tunnels; also vehicle/pedestrian conflicts and falling from partially constructed objects.

Playing It Safe

Now let's take a look at how we might go about working safely in these three situations. A first positive step would be to make a company declaration that your company is going to be as safe a workplace as possible. Assign a person to become a safety officer for your company. This person will seek out training and material that he or she will distribute to members of the firm. He or she will require accident reports to be filed on any accidents or near-misses and analyze these reports to help determine ways to improve the company's safety plan. The safety officer will give suggestions to employees on how they can foster a safer workplace. This person needs the support of management, including a budget, to be able to develop a true safety effort.

Highway Survey Safety

This will require an investment in safety equipment. The main things needed are signage, safety vests and good radio communications between crew members. Having special warning lights installed on the survey vehicle could save the crew from being involved in a major incident. You may want to consider upgrading survey technology to a new robotic total station so crew members can spend minimum time on the road surface. Many departments of transportation conduct safety training seminars, or you may request that the state survey society schedule this type of training at its next meeting (make sure you send the employees that need this training). Also, consider weekly safety meetings in which you review a list of things to remember while working along the roadway.
Vehicle Safety Post a rule proclaiming that seat belts are required for continued employment. Many companies already have mandatory drug testing. More rules: Any traffic tickets while driving the company vehicle must be reported to the company safety officer. And proper lighting must be installed on trailers. Post a company policy stating that speed laws must be observed. Create rules about how equipment will be stored in the rear of the vehicle. I have worked for some governmental agencies that require a rear cage to keep equipment from flying into the passenger area during a sudden stop. Have vehicles safety-checked every 30,000 miles or less. This is required in some states.

Construction Site Safety Working safely on the construction site is a challenge. Find out if the construction company you work for has a safety plan and become part of its effort. Make sure you provide the equipment needed to work on their site. You may need to meet certain OSHA requirements. Never let employees believe that you think safety is a waste of time or too costly. Their attitude will reflect yours. If one of your employees dies on a job site, OSHA will most likely fine you $25,000 for a willful violation--yes--25 big ones.

One last thing. Eric Thompson and David Silon, our hearts go out to you in your grief for your fallen survey team member. Also, our condolences go out to the family of Carolyn Montross. If anything good can come out of this tragedy, maybe there will be an awakening of the need for safer working conditions for all surveyors.

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