Ore. Contractors Push for Builder Safety

June 15, 2010

Architects and designers carefully consider the safety of future tenants when they design a building. But contractors would like to see designers also consider the safety of builders and future building maintenance workers.

“Most architecture and engineering firms are very good at using accepted industry standards for safety in design,” said Brett Phillips, environmental, health and safety director for Skanska. “Where design misses safety is maintainability and constructability.”

If architects met with contractors or construction safety experts before submitting a final design to an owner, safety features could be included. But according to THA Architecture principal Charles Dorn, architects aren’t trained to design safety equipment. And bringing in an outside safety consultant costs extra money most building owners aren’t willing to pay, he added.

“We can deal with minimal OSHA requirements for fall safety such as anchor points,” Dorn said. “But there’s a liability for us if we go beyond that. An owner like a university who will be maintaining a building for the next 100 years would be more likely to pay extra for that compared to a condo developer who plans to sell the project in a year.”

Architects and designers are doing their part. For example, when an owner approves a design, THA likes to hire a building system maintenance designer to look for potential safety issues before a project is built. And Hennebery Eddy architect Dan Petrescu said his firm works with contractors early in the process to be sure safety standards are enforced in the design.

But according to Oregon State University professor John Gambatese, more can be done early on to improve safety during a project.

Oftentimes, Gambatese said, contractors bring in safety equipment – such as guardrails for roof work – after the project has begun. That adds cost to the project. If guardrails could be designed as a permanent feature on roofs, however, Gambatese said it could reduce a project’s cost, and also make the roof safer for future building maintenance workers.

“If you have prefab guardrails put on a staircase before lifting it onto a building with a crane, you avoid welding at a high elevation,” Gambatese said. “With competitive bidding, it’s hard to get the contractor involved early on in the design. But having an architect with knowledge about these hazards up front would help.”

Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it has made efforts to reach out to architects and engineers in recent years about designing safety into building projects not only for the end user, but also for contractors and maintenance crews. But so far, there hasn’t been much response, according to OSHA spokeswoman Melanie Mesaros.

“We want designers to be conscious and thinking of safety, but I don’t know how likely it is that they would demand a class from us on the issue,” Mesaros said.

But with green design features such as eco-roofs and daylighting becoming increasingly popular, Phillips said there is a need for designers to be more educated about the safety challenges faced by contractors and maintenance crews.

“LEED requires buildings to have better daylighting with lots of windows,” Phillips said. “Sometimes, if you make those beautiful with angles and slopes, it makes the roof more difficult to install. With my house, I have glass up so high I can’t get up there with a ladder to wash it.”

Green roofs, according to Bill Forsythe, a vice president at Hoffman Construction, present a new safety issue. Landscape crews are required to go up on roofs to maintain the vegetation, but don’t necessarily have the safety training to avoid falls.

“We use a 42-inch high guardrail when we do roof work,” Forsythe said. “But once we take that away, there’s often nothing up there. A higher parapet wall designed as part of the building would serve multiple purposes during the life of the building for future maintenance and renovations.”

However, designing something specifically for safety could leave architects in a dicey liability situation, according to Eliot Lapidus, safety and loss control manager for the Associated General Contractors of Oregon.

“It’s like giving medical advice if you’re not a doctor,” Lapidus said. “Suppose you designed an inadequate anchor point and someone falls. It increases their liability as designers. I see this as an issue that doesn’t have a simple solution.”

Getting guidelines for higher parapet walls and permanent anchor points into building codes would go a long way toward improving the safety of a building throughout its life, Lapidus said. The American Society of Safety Engineers and OSHA, Gambatese said, have expressed an interest in expanding the tools available to architects and engineers to aid in building more safely.

“I hear a lot of designers say safety is a contractor’s job,” Gambatese said. “But what they don’t realize is they can have an effect on safety just in how they design something. It’s the nature of the industry, but things are changing.”

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