Surveyor's Footsteps: Liability and Licenses
The ever changing landscape of land surveying is offering fresh opportunities. For the person who wants to learn new technology and old methods along with design and stakeout techniques, I believe the field is wide open. One just needs to decide which type of surveying fits their ability, personality and other strengths. Are you drawn to inside design with calculating and drafting, construction layout work, high-accuracy control setup, gas drilling, mining, or typical boundary and topographic survey work?
Before I received my license as a professional land surveyor, I felt more relaxed when performing general land surveying and construction stakeout. If a problem arose, it was something for my bosses to deal with. I was really just as careful as I am now, just less concerned. But, when you have a license, you are more interesting to the people who want to sue for errors, even if you are not the business owner.
My insurance agent said that if I bought a house and an error by a surveyor cost me several thousand dollars more than the company’s insurance liability limit, wouldn’t I want to be compensated by the licensed land surveyor in charge of the work? Of course I would, and why should he/she keep their savings when I spent mine to cover their errors? He expressed that it was only a matter of time before people also sued the individual who was in charge of the mistake. Is that really the case?
At one of the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors yearly conferences, I attended a seminar on liability. I asked the insurance person teaching the course, “If a land surveying company did not have insurance, would the licensed land surveyor working for the business be liable for errors and omissions?” The speaker said that during times of financial distress, some employers let their insurance lapse to save money, and yes, the licensed land surveyor working for them and in charge of the crews may be held liable. He went on to say that any “licensed” person should be sure their employer has current liability insurance in place. That is the brief account of what he said. At the break, several attendees whose faces blanched after hearing his answer rushed to the front to ask questions. I felt sorry since it was easy to understand they were worried they might be insuring the company personally. Yes, liability and licenses can go together.
A few years ago, I was asked by an engineer to stake out a large commercial building. The project had an existing building and two wings would be constructed, one on each side. When asked about staking throughout the project for piers, walls, columns, etc., I successfully begged off. Instead, I set controls for the building and they had “construction layout people” take it from there. Outside the building, I continued the stakeout for parking lots, curbs, lamps and storm water.
I have taken this same approach on other projects. My thinking is that the construction surveyors are very good at what they do. They have quality equipment. And, most importantly, they remain on site to catch their own errors and omissions in a timely manner. My old Missouri boss once told me there were $5, $50, $500 and $5,000 errors. They are all the same error; the cost depends on how soon you found it and corrected the problem.
If you have no license, you may be doing exactly the same quality of work as a licensed land surveyor but your risk is your job. The owner of the business will deal with the fallout of field errors and may or may not keep you employed, depending on how much your error hurt them. Keep in mind, employers often have deductible amounts which could be many thousands of dollars. There are times when an employer is sued for his deductible amount because the insurance company may not fight the claim.
A savvy land surveyor told me he had to fire an employee of many years after his second field error. He just could not bear keeping him. I believe that crew chief was a good surveyor, but as a business owner, I understand how painful it is to fire workers and to assess a person may not be worth keeping, even if they worked for free.
While working for my last employer as a party chief, my crew was hired to survey a city block of buildings in Philadelphia. Because the property was made up of old four- to seven-story buildings built separately and then combined, there were many changes in floor elevation. My crew would survey inside for floor elevations around the columns and inner door sills between the buildings. Our employer’s inhouse architectural staff surveyed inside the building measuring up the distances between walls and columns in order to fix the floors to match adjoining buildings. We probably spent a month on the project.
Because the building had been left empty for years, the roof leaked and the floors were extremely weak in places. One day, I heard an odd sound from the adjoining unit to the one we were surveying. I walked over and a very upset man was sitting in a Bobcat, which was halfway through the floor. The engine was still running and he was sitting still. The next floor was probably about 15 feet down. The floor had rotted badly and he happened to be clearing off old merchandise tables and scrap wood when he fell through the floor.
I coaxed the man out of the Bobcat and onto the floor and away from the machine. The construction crews solved the problem by stacking all the long scrap lumber they could muster and put it in a pile beneath the fallen machine on the next floor down. Once the pile was perhaps 6 feet high, they cut away the floor surrounding the Bobcat and it slid softly (as soft as a Bobcat can) onto the pile below and was not really damaged at all. The driver’s nickname was Deacon as he was also a deacon for his church. I’m sure the next sermon was his and spoke loudly about God’s watching over sparrows and Bobcats.
A few weeks later, a woman who was hired to run another Bobcat went through three floors before stopping. From what I heard, she was not seriously injured, but she declined to return to work at that job. My point in these stories is that construction surveyors have a high risk of errors and of personal injury while on site. Construction surveying is difficult work and specialized in comparison to general land surveying.
If I Were a Carpenter
I set up controls for highrise buildings, but the carpenter’s union layout people are better at taking the job from there as the building rises higher above the city. The union trains their layout people through a journeyman process and I assume very skilled surveyors pass down techniques and wisdom as well.
The last thing I did at that building was to stake out control lines for an atrium being constructed inside the existing structure. I set axis lines and the carpenters would string piano wire to layout as they built the new columns, floors and walls inside the building.
Why was I hired to do that interior layout? The site superintendent told me it was because my employer could be sued if the control work was incorrect. He could not sue the union workers. This might be part of a gross misunderstanding between layout carpenters and land surveyors. In my opinion, land surveyors are not competing for construction layout work on large union projects. The issue might be who can be sued if there is a mistake.
At the aforementioned site, I made the mistake of putting on a leather carpenter’s apron to hold the nails, PKs and tacks I would be setting for the control points. As I knelt down to set a tack in the floor, a dozen pairs of feet surrounded me. I was asked “What do you think you are doing?” I am pretty straightforward and did not understand I was kneeling there and they were implying a beating would be delivered to this non-union surveyor.
Innocently and directly answering their question, I said something like, “Well, I’m setting this tack for controls for the atrium,” and they looked befuddled and dispersed as I looked around, still trying to tell them what the tack meant and what I was doing.
Unbeknownst to me, later that day my crew member, the 17-year-old son of the owner, was threatened while standing at the vending machine. He was told “It’s not good for your health to be working here.” He was sufficiently frightened, told his father that night, and I was assigned another worker for the duration of the project. Nothing ever happened to anyone of us, the job went fine, and all was well.
Had us country surveyors been left alone, we would have spent only one or two more days laying out controls, and I certainly never thought I would offend layout people by my presence, nor did I think they were not just as qualified as myself to do the work. The difference between them and me is they were not insured.
There have been many times where I worked on projects setting controls to be used by very competent construction surveyors and I respect their knowledge and experience. That run in with union layout people was not a singular experience.
Non-union surveyors working for builders and contractors perform a lot of stakeout work in this area. By Pennsylvania State law, only a licensed professional land surveyor or those working under the direction of a licensed professional land surveyor are allowed to set property corners. When I see a plastic cap that has “survey marker” on the top, I wonder why there is a cap but no name on the cap.
Some of the large builders have their own inhouse survey crews for layout work and also engineering departments for their own designs. When you work for an employer, be it a land surveying firm or construction firm, you will survey the way they want you to survey, to the accuracy they require. I have seen some stakeout methods by inhouse land surveyors which I believe reflect a close relationship between layout crews and those who use their stakes.
When things were last booming here, one earthmoving company had many crews with good equipment. They also carry insurance. In the Philadelphia area during the 1980s, construction companies began to hire the field crews of large land surveying companies. Being a crew chief at the time, I looked into the possibility of working for a large developer and how much they might pay.
An extremely competent party chief named Fred worked for one of these large businesses and told me about working as a construction surveyor. You might be as good a construction surveyor as Fred, but probably not better. He was paid starting when he arrived at the jobsite and it might be an hour or more of driving time with zero compensation for mileage. Rain or snow time was unpaid time. Yes, the pay was higher, but if there was no field work due to weather or scheduling, he was on his own, sitting unpaid in the rain waiting to see if they could go back to work.
Winter meant low working hours and layoffs in construction. Weighing the difference, I chose less hourly compensation and working year round for an employer I really liked. Today, these positions may be salary with guaranteed pay, but I just don’t know.
My decision to stay with a land surveying company paid off. Had I stayed with construction surveying, there would be little chance of migrating to the office, higher pay, varying experience and licensure. We must have a variety of “land surveying experience” to pass the exam. Once I moved inside the office, my pay was far higher than Fred’s and my future was pointed at obtaining my license and even higher pay per hour, plus opportunities to own a business.
I believe land surveying companies offer a terrific future for anyone getting into the field that is willing to learn, listen, observe and work hard. For those who choose working for developers, utility companies, government survey departments, unions, to name a few, I wish you all the best of success. Whatever the way you enter into it, land surveying is the best job in the world.