3 Architectural Design Horror Stories and How to Prevent Them
By Robert K. Tuman
I have been a construction safety consultant for more than 30 years. As such, I’ve been in and on more than a thousand completed buildings as well as buildings under construction. For the most part, architects and engineers had designed those buildings with the safety of service personnel in mind. However, there were several glaring cases of almost total disregard for the safety of workers and service personnel such as roofers, window contractors, mechanical contractors and facade restoration contractors.
Here are the cases—and tips on how to apply risk management techniques in the design stage to prevent a repeat performance.
Case No. 1: I poked my head through a roof hatch opening on my way to inspecting a roofing client. Much to my chagrin, the opening was 6 inches from the unprotected roof edge. There was not enough room for a portable guardrail or any kind of perimeter fall protection, and the fall distance was more than 40 feet.
Case No. 2: A window contractor client was asked to replace several 4-foot-by-8-foot glass panels in the middle of an all-glass barrel roof erected in 1989. The roof let light into a pedestrian atrium more than 75 feet below. The only way to get to the damaged panels was to walk on the “intact” glass panels and/or the metal “ribs” surrounding them.
The owner asked my client to develop a site-specific safety plan before starting the work. As part of this plan, we obtained the glass panels’ 1989 load-bearing specifications. I contacted the original installer and fortunately was able to speak to the project engineer who had been in charge of the 1989 installation. When I asked him if the panels were safe to walk on, he replied, “Of course, they will handle the amount of weight detailed in the 1989 specifications.” But when I asked him to put this in writing, he said, “Are you crazy? Do you think I would expose my company to a lawsuit?”
Case No. 3: During a routine safety inspection of a building under construction, I observed eight shaky frames of occupied pipe staging which were not tied into the building. OSHA essentially requires staging to be tied into a building at the fourth vertical frame, then every 26 feet vertically and every 30 feet horizontally thereafter.
When I asked the façade company’s foreman why the pipe staging was not tied into the building, he said that tie-ins would void the EIFS (exterior installation finish systems) warranty, and further that patching a hole would also void the EIFS warranty.
Why didn’t these architects consider the safety needs of the workers and service personnel? I don’t know. What I do know is that personal injury attorneys “shotgun.” They pull in all parties with deep pockets. The personal injury lawyer would have a good case against the architect who put the roof hatch close to the impossible-to-protect roof edge, the architect who designed the glass panel roof (picture broken glass and workers falling onto office workers having lunch below), and the architect who specified an EIFS façade without the ability of the applicator to secure its pipe staging to the building.
What can building owners, architects, insurers and workers do to minimize this exposure? Here are a few actions they can take:
- Building owners and architects: Engage a construction risk manager or consultant or brainstorm to help you understand the risks to workers and service personnel, and to develop and implement a risk management plan which you and contractors sign.
- Insurers: Mandate the development of a risk management plan as a prerequisite to insuring the building. This plan should include mechanisms for providing feedback on unsafe conditions and corrective actions which can be taken.
- Tradespersons: Provide feedback to building owners and contractors on unsafe conditions. If you perceive that the unsafe condition is imminently dangerous to life and/or health, arrange to work in another part of a building until the corrective action has been taken.