Columns / Surveyor Safety

Safety Sense: Safety and the Solo Surveyor

April 27, 2011
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In the June 2004 issue of POB, my column focused on lone worker safety. Since that article, I have been asked questions about one-person crews at every class we conduct. I started this article after observing a one-person crew using a robotic station earlier this year. I got pulled away from the writing, and in a 10-day period have observed two additional individuals working as solo surveyors. Without repeating the information in the 2004 article (available at www.pobonline.com), I want to address a few of the items I noticed.

All three of the workers I observed had at least one thing in common: none of them was wearing high-visibility clothing. Although all of my sightings were at construction projects, it’s important to keep in mind that high-visibility clothing isn’t just for roadway work. Anytime there is a danger of being hit by vehicles or equipment--including on a construction jobsite--workers should wear high-visibility clothing. I have always recommended that field workers put on their high-visibility clothing first thing in the morning and leave it on for the rest of the day. Many of the crews I work with even leave their vest, shirt or jacket on at lunchtime. In the course of your daily activities, you never know when a detour may have to be made that could put you in harm’s way.

In one of the cases I observed this year, the surveyor had his vehicle parked at the edge of the roadway. There was no curb, and the truck was partially on the roadway. This was a low-volume urban street, and yet there wasn’t a single sign, cone or barricade to be seen. There also was no strobe or other amber light flashing. For this type of activity, the requirements would have been minimal, but not even a low level of compliance was being observed.

I had the opportunity to speak with the surveyor for a short period of time. I first addressed the vest issue, and his comment was that it was a pain in the … well, you know. After I explained why it was important, he retrieved his vest from the vehicle and tried to put it on over his heavy coat, but the vest was easily two to three sizes too small. I explained that I worked with surveyors throughout the country on safety issues and asked him a few more questions. No, the company he worked for didn’t have a written safety program. Yes, he did know what an MSDS (material safety data sheet) was, but the only one he had with him was one for spray paint. He had a few 18-inch safety cones in his truck but no signs. His complete knowledge of OSHA seemed to be that if he went to a jobsite where OSHA was present, he was to leave immediately. He said there was a pair of safety glasses “someplace in the truck” and there was a hard hat behind the seat. His safety training appeared to be minimal at best.

I didn’t get a chance to speak with the other two surveyors I saw working independently. Both of them were working on construction sites where their vehicles were also on the site. Equipment was being used around both surveyors, and there were a number of hazards in the area, including a lake, several trenches that had fencing around them and a few small trenches with no protection. The ground was very rough with frozen mud and ice. One of the sites covered about 15 to 20 acres, and the other site was quite a bit smaller. Just looking at the sites and the surveyors’ lack of basic safety apparel made me wonder how safety-conscious they were overall.

When inspecting a construction project, I, too, work alone. I walk all around the jobsite, and I am not on the project daily to have a good understanding of where all the hazards are located. I can certainly understand the need to get the job done and move on to the next project; that is how I make my money, also. But ultimately, I want to make certain I get to that next project. For that reason, as soon as I arrive onsite, I always try to check in with the superintendent of the project to find out if there are any particular hazards I should avoid. I always make certain that my wife is aware of where I am going and about how long I will be there. I check in with her on a constant basis, and if it has been awhile since I checked in, she may call me just to make sure everything is going well. While walking around, if I see an area that appears to have some hazards, I will do some further investigation before getting closer--even if that means calling someone from the general contactor or developer. Remember, if you are alone and you get into trouble, it could be a long time before you get help.

When we discuss this issue in my safety classes, participants are quick to point out that they always carry cell phones and can easily call for help. My response is that a cell phone might not work in the bottom of a manhole or trench. We all know that cell service is spotty in many parts of the country.

A few years ago, the assistant superintendent on a construction project fell from a second-story balcony into a small, muddy depression on the site. No one saw him fall. He tried to use his cell phone, but he had some broken ribs and had difficulty breathing. He could barely whisper, and the superintendent, who was offsite at the time, couldn’t understand what he was saying. When the superintendent returned and couldn’t reach the assistant by phone, he enlisted several workers to look for man. The assistant was wearing clothing the same color as the mud, so he blended in with his surroundings. The search party finally found him when he was able to raise his arm just enough that it could be seen.

He was fortunate; he survived. It’s possible that he could have been rescued much sooner--and perhaps even avoided the fall altogether--by following basic safety precautions.

Within the last few years, technology advances have undeniably helped improve lone worker safety. Many cell phones now have software that allows users to be instantly located through a computer or another cell phone (assuming, of course, the surveyor is in an area with adequate reception). Lone worker safety communications devices have also improved significantly. However, the United States still appears to be lagging behind other countries in safety awareness for independent field workers. A Google search for “lone worker safety” pulls up several public and private information resources in the U.K. but few noncommercial websites in the U.S. The same search on the OSHA website returns just one result. (Changing the search term to “lone worker” returns six, but most of these resources contain just brief mentions of workers working alone.)

With regard to the three surveyors I saw on different jobsites, at least one of the workers needs quite a bit of safety training, and I am guessing the others do, as well. But safety must also go beyond training to a personal awareness of why safe practices are so important. I would bet that all of the workers I saw had vests or other high-visibility clothing in their vehicles. So why didn’t they wear them? Is it too much to ask of a single worker to place signs and cones, survey the area for potential hazards, and work safely?

One of my students in a recent seminar commented that he was the company. He commented that he “just doesn’t have time to mess with all of the safety stuff.” While no one wants to get injured, a single-person operation can least afford to be down for an injury. If you aren’t working, you aren’t making any money!

The number of one-person crews and solo surveying firms has increased tremendously. Today, almost every company has one-person crews doing some of their work. For all sizes and types of firms, safety is paramount, but lone workers should be especially vigilant.

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