Editor’s note: this essay is USC ASCE’s submission to the 2015 ASCE Daniel W. Mead Prize for Students. Sylvia Tran is graduating in Spring 2015 with a B.S. in Civil Engineering (Building Science) and a M.S.C.E. in Structural Engineering. She currently serves as Secretary of USC ASCE. Sylvia will present this paper at the PSWC 2015 Technical Paper Competition at the University of Arizona.
The Future of Construction: Shared Responsibilities
Almost every construction company lists safety as a top priority, yet according to the United States Department of Labor, 4,405 workers were killed on the job in 2013, averaging 12 deaths per day (United States Department of Labor. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”). While the number of construction related injuries and deaths has decreased over the last few decades, construction remains one of the most dangerous industries. Historically, the controlling contractor accepts responsibilities for all safety issues that occur during the construction process. However, in recent years, society has turned to engineers, who may be more qualified to examine the “human costs” of building their designs, to be more intimately involved with the construction process. As the Engineer of Record becomes more involved in a project, dividing the responsibility of safety between contractor and engineer becomes more difficult. Nevertheless, the Engineer of Record is ethically responsible for injuries and deaths that occur during construction of his or her design and should share the associated legal responsibilities with the controlling contractor.
Today’s complex project delivery systems complicate responsibility for the “design.” A proper definition of “design responsibility” begins by examining the professional’s legal duties imposed by state laws, permitting agency rules, and professional ethical standards (Bender 2007). The Engineer of Record carries the responsibility of the structural stability of a building by sealing and stamping the documents, certifying that the licensee is competent in the subject matter and responsible for the work product. However, the obligations of the Engineer of Record continue after the initial drawing submittals throughout the life of the project. The engineer must also review the means and methods of construction and perform structural observations (Bender 2007). On April 23, 1987, the partially erected structural frame of L’Ambiance Plaza, an apartment tower in Bridgeport, Connecticut, collapsed, killing 28 construction workers (Heger 2006). The contract documents split the structural design responsibility between the contractor’s engineer and the Engineer of Record. The L’Ambiance Plaza collapsed due to one improper design of the lifting collars, which was one of the responsibilities delegated to the contractor. Although a registered professional engineer should have sealed the contractor’s design, the Engineer of Record only sealed the contract drawings (Heger 2006). The American Institute for Steel Construction Code states that “the Structural Engineer of Record shall be responsible for the structural adequacy of the design of the structure in the completed project.” According to the ASCE Code of Ethics, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public… in the performance of their professional duties.” (ASCE. “Code of Ethics.”) Though engineers are legally responsible for the full design of the building, they should also take ethical responsibility for safety during and after construction.
Legally, contractors are currently responsible for the safety of both the builders and the public during the construction process. The contractor must provide safety training, personal protection, first aid training, job site inspection, and hazard reporting throughout the project in order to reduce unsafe conditions (Clough and Sears 2005). Before construction, project-specific job hazard analyses can help identify hazards before they occur and to minimize potential dangers. During construction, project engineers, foremen, and safety managers are responsible for identifying and correcting safety hazards that may endanger builders or the public (Thomas Conroy and Frank DiGiovanni, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2014). Contractors are responsible for knowing the building code and are professionally liable to “build per design (Butch Shin, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2014).” In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) imposed safety and health standards on the construction industry. According to OSHA’s website, “Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their employees.” (United States Department of Labor. “Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”) General contractors are responsible for providing a safe workplace, tools, and equipment and exercising reasonable care in accident prevention throughout the construction process to meet OSHA’s standards, but despite all of their responsibilities, there will still be safety concerns that an engineer would be more familiar with.
Construction safety requires coordination between contractors and engineers. A close partnership and open line of communication between the contractor and the engineer are key to project safety and success. Current laws dictate the contractor’s responsibility to review the construction means and methods (Thomas Conroy and Frank DiGiovanni, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2014). According to Dimitry Vergun, a practicing architect and structural engineer for over fifty years, “reviewing construction is not [the engineer’s] specialty; it’s the contractor’s. It should be up to [them] to raise flags… if they think something is not feasible to construct.” (Dimitry Vergun, personal communication, Oct. 9, 2014) Contract documents should clearly identify and assign responsibilities to the Engineer of Record and the contractor’s engineer, since individual responsibilities of the owners, professionals, and contractors are integrated and interrelated (Bender 2007). Every member of the design and construction team needs to be qualified, responsible, and committed to the safety of the project; a strong partnership will result in a successful and safe project.
As designs become more complex, structural engineers need to provide constructible details and engage with the contracting firm to better understand the constraints of construction. Constructability is a key aspect that should be considered before any drawing or detail is stamped. Neglecting to provide these details may result in situations like the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel Walkway Collapse, which caused 114 deaths and over 200 injuries in July 1981. Jack D. Gillum, the Engineer of Record for the project, wrote that the structural failure occurred because “the connection that failed was never designed (Gillum 2000).” Gillum believes that the designed connection detail should have been on the engineer’s drawings and the fabricator’s shop drawings, and that its absence should have been noticed by the shop drawing check or during the engineer’s design recheck. This incident impacted countless lives and challenged the standards of the construction and engineering communities. Engineers should also keep construction constraints in mind when designing to control the difficulty and build quality of construction (Allison Yu, e-mail interview, Oct. 29, 2014). Conditions based on the geographic location of a project, such as high winds in Chicago or seismic activity in Los Angeles, also need to be considered during the design process. While the responsibility of the Engineer of Record is intended for the completed building, an ethically-responsible engineer will design with foreseeably poor construction conditions in mind.
Even with thorough preparation and due diligence, accidents occur. No one should take the blame in these situations. For example, contractors take precautions to protect members of the public who would like to observe construction operations. In spite of adequate safety precautions, people may still be injured (Clough and Sears 2005). Just as accidents occur despite appropriate precautions taken by the contractor, the engineer can only do so much to prevent injuries. Innovative designs inevitably incur new safety hazards and unforeseeable accidents. In these situations, it is important for incidents to become meaningful “lessons learned” that will translate to the engineer’s next project. If the appropriate safety precautions are taken, neither the contractor nor the engineer is at fault. Society should understand that accidents happen and mistakes occur, despite planning and safety preparations (Thomas Conroy and Frank DiGiovanni, personal communication, Oct. 6, 2014).
Engineers should be responsible for their own work and ensure that the construction methods for their designs are correct. Reviewing the means and methods of construction muddles the question of responsibility of safety during construction and requires coordination between the structural Engineer of Record and the contractor (Heger 2006). On July 10, 2006, a ventilation duct ceiling panel in Boston’s I-90 highway tunnel fell onto a vehicle and killed a woman. The investigations of the Big Dig Ceiling Collapse found that fast-set epoxy had been used to hold the anchor bolts in place instead of the standard-set epoxy that the company originally ordered (Wallis 2006). The fast-set epoxy dried quickly, but lost its bonding strength within weeks. Despite testing the strength of the bolts, the builders did not discover the problem because they attributed failures to installation errors rather than the epoxy (Wald 2007). The inspection report attributed the collapse to “poor design specifications, inadequate management of construction, improper load testing, and unauthorized deviations from [the specifications] (Wallis 2006).” This incident could have been prevented if an Engineer of Record had reviewed the means and methods on this project or requested a method of construction from the contractor to see if the necessary precautions and procedures were in place. Tragedies like the Big Dig Collapse demonstrate the lack of proper oversight of the construction means and methods.
The Engineer of Record must also perform structural observations. These consist of on-site inspections reported to the building department (Dimitry Vergun, personal communication, Oct. 9, 2014). The engineer should observe critical moments during construction of complicated configurations to ensure that the structure is built according to the design. Structural observations allow engineers to see if the contractor is creating structural hazards in an attempt to save time or money. In Chicago in 1979, the arched wooden roof of the Rosemont Horizon Stadium suddenly collapsed without warning, killing five workers and injuring sixteen (Abernethy 2012). The investigation examined whether the plans provided sufficient support for the roof and whether the builders had properly followed these plans (“Chicago, IL Rosemont Stadium Roof Collapse, Aug 1979.” 1979). OSHA revealed that, “the building was in such unstable condition that anything could have set off the collapse.” Inspectors later found that less than half of the required connection bolts on the building’s roof and less than a third of the steel plates were properly installed, which may have been prevented if adequate structural inspections were in place (Abernethy 2012). Proper construction requires proper oversight, but even the best of contractors are susceptible to making mistakes (Gillum 2000). The project team should determine the need for structural engineering services beyond the submittal of the permit documents, which may include conducting structural observations and reviewing shop drawings of structurally significant elements throughout construction, to prevent injury and death during construction (Bender 2007).
Currently, the Engineer of Record is legally responsible for performing periodic structural observations and reviewing the means and methods. However, maximizing the role of the engineer would improve safety during construction. Introducing more legal risk and liability would increase engineer involvement by making them a more significant stakeholder in the project (Butch Shin, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2014). Existing code committees should encourage practicing engineers to review all provisions relating to public and construction safety (Bender 2007). Building regulations should require a permit for construction methods and means to be designed by a licensed engineer who would be specifically responsible for structural safety during the construction process. Another beneficial addition to the law would require the construction of any structural component to be observed by either the Engineer of Record or a qualified structural engineer familiar with the project’s design requirements (Heger 2006). Qualified engineers should be involved throughout the construction process and rewarded in proportion to the amount of responsibility they take on and the amount of time they spend on a project. Further beneficial additions to the law could require that the construction of any structural component be observed by either the Engineer of Record or a qualified structural engineer familiar with the project design requirements (Heger 2006). By revising current laws to require more review of construction means and methods and more structural observations, engineers will become more legally involved with creating a safer construction process.
Who is responsible for safety? Everybody. According to the ASCE Code of Ethics, engineers are called to hold safety as their top priority (ASCE. “Code of Ethics.”). This means that both structural engineers, including the Engineer of Record, and project engineers are responsible for construction safety. In order to improve safety, today’s design and construction process requires changes in the law regarding minimum design standards as well as building regulations. The Engineer of Record should be more involved with the construction process, and therefore, share more of the legal responsibilities with the controlling contractor for any injury or death that occurs during construction.
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