If you have to drive to a jobsite, the best way to start a safe day’s work is to make sure your vehicle is in good condition and has the proper equipment and storage.

For this reason, a review of field vehicles is an important part of a safety audit for surveying firms.

The review generally starts with questions about the vehicle itself. Who is responsible for repairs? What about normal maintenance such as oil changes and tire rotations? All drivers should be required to complete at least a minimal routine vehicular safety evaluation. Simple checks of liquid levels, steering, brakes (driving and parking), tire inflation, seatbelts, horn, etc. can be performed in just a few minutes. If an item is found to be defective, then the driver must make a determination of whether it is critical to the safe operation of the vehicle. If a vehicle isn’t safe to drive, then don’t drive it!

There should also be a system in place to make use of the information that is collected during routine inspections. I recall one company that required drivers to compile reports daily and send them to the office each week. For over a year and a half, the driver had been marking that there was a major crack in the windshield, yet the person at the company who schedules maintenance didn’t think the crack was important enough to bring the truck in off the road and didn’t want to spend the money. If the drivers are required to complete a list, someone else should be required to follow up to make certain the required repairs are done by a competent mechanic.

The cleanliness of the passenger compartment can also directly relate to safety. One of my clients related an incident in which a soda bottle wedged up between the brake pedal and the floorboard while an employee was braking to a fast stop. Fortunately, the driver was able to let up on the brake for a second so that the bottle could shift and then resume braking, thereby avoiding a crash. Another driver recounted an incident where a candy wrapper stuck to his foot and caused it to slip off the brake pedal. He also avoided a crash, but it was very close. It would be far better to avoid these situations altogether by keeping vehicle interiors clean and litter-free.

Driver and Passenger Considerations

A field vehicle safety review should also consider the driver. Most insurance companies conduct annual driving record checks based on a list of employees their clients provide to them. However, many firms don’t think about employees who drive their personal vehicles for work-related tasks. Did you know that if an administrative assistant drives to the office supply store in his or her own vehicle during work hours, your company can be liable in the event of a traffic accident? Having your insurance company conduct driving record checks on all employees can provide you with valuable information on workers that have a bad driving record or maybe even no license at all. (Incidentally, your company policies should require all employees who drive during working hours to have a valid operator’s license and to use seatbelts while driving.)

A common problem encountered particularly with vans is what I call the “drywall mud bucket” issue. This situation occurs quite frequently when there are only two seats in the van and you need to transport three workers--the low person on the totem pole gets the drywall mud bucket to sit on during the trip. Variations include the concrete mix bag seat, the paint bucket seat, the wooden stake bundle seat and--if you are really uptown--the lawn chair seat. If you order your vans new, make certain that you specify a third seat. If you need to purchase a third seat separately, check out a local van conversion company. Sometimes you can purchase new seats for a cheap price.

Another issue that can become a problem is work vehicles being used to transport non-employees. Many companies allow their field vehicles to be taken home at night by the crew foreman. In some cases, limited personal use may even be permitted. But do you have restrictions on who or how many people can ride in your vehicles? Most firms wouldn’t object if a worker picked up his or her child from school using a company vehicle, but what if there were three other students who didn’t have a ride home? Would you permit employees to haul half the soccer team in the back of the van or pickup? Even the smallest of companies should have basic rules that allow some use of the vehicle but limit potential liabilities.

Safety Equipment and Storage

Vehicle- and work-related safety equipment should also be considered. A short list of equipment that should be in every vehicle includes a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit and reflective triangles for the vehicle. In addition, the vehicle should contain basic personal protective equipment (glasses, hearing protection, possibly a dust respirator, gloves, hard hat, etc.) along with traffic control signage, safety vests and traffic cones. Make sure that you have ample supplies of each item. If multiple workers are assigned to a vehicle, then that vehicle must carry enough PPE so that each worker can be adequately protected.

While conducting safety audits on construction jobsites in the past year, I encountered multiple surveyors on the same site on several occasions. Every vehicle was short on basic items such as vests. Of course, I heard many excuses such as, “I didn’t know I would need my vest today,” “No one told me this was a hard hat jobsite,” or my favorite, “I didn’t know they had a safety inspector for this jobsite.” Your crew needs to be prepared every time they leave the office for anything they might encounter. How many times have you had to redirect a crew during the day because a client called with an “emergency”?

Also, consider how the safety gear and all of the required tools of the trade are stowed in the vehicle. For years, surveyors have used heavy plywood boxes assembled by their crews. While some of these aren’t bad, others would fall apart in the event of a serious accident. If you build your own storage containers, keep in mind that the box should be secured to the vehicle--ideally to the frame and not just to sheet metal. However the box is constructed, it should be covered to prohibit material from becoming flying objects in the event of sudden braking or a wreck. Use screws and not just nails. Rebar, wooden stakes, tripods and other equipment flying through the air at 55, 65, 70 or even 80 mph can become deadly projectiles. Some of the manufactured storage boxes and compartments offer all of this protection and are geared specifically for the surveying profession.

Explosion Hazards

Spray paint and batteries often must be transported in field vehicles, but these materials can present an explosion hazard if they are not stored correctly. Keep in mind the temperature limitations of these materials. Avoid carrying excessive amounts of spray paint, and keep the cans out of direct sunlight. You should also check the warning labels on your batteries--some batteries have lower temperature safety thresholds than others.

Gasoline storage can also be a serious safety issue. The explosive potential of just one gallon of gasoline in a confined area can be equal to 100 sticks of dynamite. Storing gasoline inside a van is not safe under any conditions, and transporting a can attached to the outside of the rear door is just inviting a fire in the event of a rear-end collision. In pickup trucks, gasoline should always be inside an approved DOT- and OSHA-compliant can, which features a spring-loaded handle/cap along with an integral spark arrester. The can also needs to be secured to prevent movement in any direction and to protect it from being punctured in an accident.

Safe field vehicles are an important part of work safety. By understanding the basics, maybe we can all increase the level of vehicular safety a notch or two.


Sidebar: PPE and Other Protective Items for Surveyors

The following list should be considered as a bare minimum of items that are readily available for all field survey crews. These items should be in every field vehicle:
  • Hard hat
  • Eye protection (safety glasses in clear and dark as well as goggles)
  • Protective gloves for working in the field (leather, cut-resistant and impervious)
  • Protective footwear for conditions that could be encountered (hot, cold, wet)
  • Clothing appropriate for conditions
  • Safety vest (in sizes and classes appropriate for the conditions)
  • Fire extinguisher
  • First aid kit (stocked as needed for your work and state--e.g., a bee sting or snake bite kit along with normal items)
  • Poison ivy, oak, etc. protectants (depending on hazards present)
  • A high-quality sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher)
  •  Rated nuisance dust masks
  • Hearing protection
  • Stop paddle/flags (for directing traffic)
  • Safety cones (quantity depending on your work)
  • Warning signs (such as “Survey Crew”; no less than two, maybe more)
The following items may be needed when encountering some situations:
  • Personal fall protection equipment
  • Coast Guard-rated flotation work vests
  • Lifesaving ring
  • Rescue boat (may be provided by others on construction sites)
  • Confined space entry equipment
Your final list may have more items if field crews are exposed to additional hazards.