Protection is Calling

A look at safety precautions on the massive Woodrow Wilson Bridge project

This spring, Woodrow Wilson Bridge project Safety Manager John Arnoux was making one of his frequent rounds through the construction area when he spotted a subcontractor foreman standing in the middle of a field directing heavy equipment.
“The foreman got out of his truck, walked over to a front-end loader and gave instructions to the operator,” said Arnoux of Potomac Crossing Consultants (PCC), the project managers. “Then he walked to a backhoe operator and showed him what he wanted done. And then he walked over to another piece of equipment and back to his truck. All the while, dust was swirling around him. And his reddish-brown jacket was the same color as the dirt. You could barely see him.”
Hardhats, safety glasses and high-visibility safety apparel are mandatory for PCC personnel when working around moving vehicles on the $2.6 billion project, which involves constructing approaches and a new bridge to carry the Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495) over the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia south of the nation’s capital.
Arnoux directs that PCC personnel wear their high-visibility vests at all times and suggested to the subcontractor foreman that he put one on for his own protection and out of “consideration and respect for his operators.” He explained to the foreman that an operator looking straight ahead probably would catch sight in his peripheral vision of a person wearing a high-visibility vest, even if that individual is well off to the side. But if the person’s jacket matches the color of the soil he is standing on, there is a chance the operator would not see him and he could become a fatality.
Respect for co-workers plays a big role in the personal protective equipment (PPE) program that Arnoux oversees for the Wilson Bridge project management, whether it involves high-visibility apparel or any of the other types of PPE. In fact, Arnoux says it is one of his most convincing arguments to make the case for safety—“a secret to the success” of his safety program.

Overwhelmed by today’s traffic

The existing Wilson Bridge, completed in 1961, carries nearly three times more traffic than it was designed to handle. Substantial volumes of traffic from adjacent interchanges merge just as the eight-lane Capital Beltway constricts to six lanes on the bridge, causing daily miles-long backups on both sides of the river and one of the worst bottlenecks in the country. Today’s nearly 200,000 daily trips are projected to grow to nearly 300,000 by 2020.
The construction includes replacing the existing single-span bascule (draw-type) bridge with dual spans that are 20 ft higher (allowing taller ships to pass under to minimize the number of openings) and constructing four new interchanges to improve traffic flow and alleviate congestion. The project began in 2001 and is under budget and on schedule, with the new bridge (each span with six lanes, full shoulders and a bike path) to be open by 2008 and the entire 71?2-mile-long project to be completed by 2011. It is the largest public works project in the mid-Atlantic region.
Arnoux works directly for Parsons Brinckerhoff, which has overall responsibility for project safety. Rummel, Klepper & Kahl (RKK) and URS are the other members of the project management team operating together under the PCC banner. This joint venture works for the Federal Highway Administration, the states of Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia, which own the bridge and highways leading to it and are funding the project. By Arnoux’s estimate, the project involves nearly 400 contractors and subs, ranging from major companies doing the construction to smaller ones involved with environmental aspects, communications and so forth.

Talking safety

Protection Update, published by the International Safety Equipment Association, discussed the Wilson Bridge safety program with Arnoux at his office on the Maryland side of the Potomac and again following a boat tour of the construction site:

Q: How does your safety program function day to day?
A: Each of the large contractors is responsible for its safety program, and each has a safety manager who takes that accountability. They all must submit their written programs to me. Our joint-venture team reviews their programs, offers recommendations and returns them to the contractors. They make adjustments in line with our recommendations and resubmit them to me.
Q: Once those programs are approved, do the contractors have to report on a regular schedule of what is happening out there from a safety standpoint?
A: No, because we do not dictate their safety programs. However, I do monitor their programs, mainly by going out into the field and observing and making suggestions. I am basically a resource to the safety people out there. If they have questions or coordination issues, with emergency-medical or rescue services for example, then I help with those. We also interface with contractors’ safety committees.

Q: You monitor and enforce PPE use by having regular meetings and visits with the contractors. How often does this happen?
A: I visit the contractors on Tuesday and Thursday of every week. And I would be out there every day if I could. I really enjoy getting out in the field, but there are other obligations.

Q: If a contractor has an accident—let’s say somebody falls and is not wearing fall protection—is that reported to you?
A: Yes. That would be required by their contracts and carried on their recordable accidents/incidents and their lost-time accidents/incidents. These are reported to me on a monthly basis.

Q: How many workers are there on the project and what is the percentage of those who use PPE on a regular basis?
A: Right now, we probably have between 800 and 1,000 people on the project. All of the PCC staff is required to wear the proper PPE at all times while out in the field. The contractors’ and subcontractors’ safety programs allow for everyone out there to have hardhats, safety glasses and high-visibility vests everywhere on the jobsite. Other types of PPE—hearing, respiratory, hand and foot protection—are required as the situation warrants. We have not had toxic situations that warranted supplied-air respirators or even half masks. This is basically all new construction working outdoors. But there is a lot of dust from chipping and grinding, welding fumes and so forth, so we use a lot of N-95 particulate respirators.

Q: What about silica?
A: Of course, silica is an issue when working with concrete. But it is not at the forefront for us because we are working outdoors. I don’t see a lot of confined-space issues, and we don’t have toxic or hazardous chemicals at this point. However, we do have plenty of dust.

Q: What about air-monitoring equipment?
A: I require it when we are setting manholes or duct banks, or moving fuel tanks, as we have on the Virginia side of the project. The other day, we detected contaminants in a fuel tank at several hundred parts per million. The contractor pulled everyone out of that area, and we let the excavation ventilate until it was safe for people to go in there again.

Q: It seems that this project would present some unique safety challenges. For example, I saw workers who appeared to be rappelling down the arches of the superstructure as they installed forms for pouring concrete. What was going on there?
A: All of the bascule is unique in its construction, in its form and in its design. Every bridge pier is mathematically different. Each aspect brings its own safety challenges. The workers you saw were not rappelling; they were using cable grabs. They had their safety cables in place and, of course, it’s a fall-arrest system.

Q: You are working year-round. You have got weather situations to deal with. Are there any particular heat stress or cold stress challenges that you have found working out on the water under what can be very brutal conditions in winter or summer?
A: They certainly can. I have safety meetings where I address heat-stress issues—heat exhaustion. I provide my people with sunscreen. The contractors probably do also. In the cold—in hypothermic conditions—we certainly have our meetings with contractors that address those situations.

Q: Do you provide educational materials for them, or is that solely the responsibility of the safety managers for the contractors?
A: Each company has its own safety program and handouts, but I will provide them with information should they request it. I do my own 10-hour OSHA training and we conduct first aid/CPR training every year for my inspector staff. If we have room in those classes, I invite contractor personnel.

Q: Are there problems associated with overseeing a project with so many stakeholders—two states, the District of Columbia and several branches of the federal government—who may have different worker safety requirements and making sure they are addressed in terms of PPE?
A: Safety, per the OSH Act of 1970, is fairly generic. We all follow the rules and regulations of the same CFR-29; basically, that is our bible. We don’t change much, safety-wise, from one jurisdiction to the other. All of our general contractors’ safety programs are drafted according to OSHA standards.

Q: Do you see many federal and state safety representatives on the jobsite?
A: We see them all regularly. In fact, [Virginia Department of Transportation representatives] came out just the other day and did a four-hour “walkabout” safety inspection on [one of the contracts]. I keep in touch with them on the Internet and through friendships. I have known some of these people for more than 20 years, and they have been very helpful with our safety program.

Q: Can you tell me about any interesting safety incentive programs on the project?
A: R. R. Dawson has a very innovative one. In short, employees earn Dawson Dollars for practicing good safety. If they show up for work and don’t get hurt, they earn 10 Dawson Dollars a year. If an employee corrects an unsafe act or condition, he or she receives one Dawson Dollar per documented incident. If an employee has a safety idea that is implemented throughout the company, the reward is 100 Dawson Dollars. Supervisors are given Dawson Dollars in set amounts—five, 10 and 20 DDs—to give out for “atta boys” or “atta girls.” Unsafe work carries penalties. Each accident costs an employee two Dawson Dollars, and failure to report an accident, incident or near-miss zeroes the employee’s account. Each employee can keep two years’ worth of Dawson Dollars on the books. They spend most of them at the Dawson General Store, which is stocked with company logo and high-end safety items, NASCAR tickets and so forth.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts regarding PPE use you would like to share with our readers?

A: PPE use is a requirement on our project. We represent the construction industry, and it’s basically part of our gear, just like a scuba diver wears his tanks and his wet suit. Members of my team don’t ever get out of a vehicle without the hardhat, safety glasses and reflective vest. At elevations of 6 ft and above, everybody must don a harness and lanyard. Project managers must wear high-visibility apparel 100% of the time. None of my inspectors will get out of a vehicle without it. I encourage the contractors to do likewise.

Safety is paying off

The project management’s attention to safety is paying off in terms of low lost workday and recordable injury rates. As of the end of March 2004, the Maryland contracts (including the bridge, itself) showed a lost workday case rate of 1.1 and a recordable injury rate of 6 (for 1.44 million work hours) and the Virginia contracts showed a lost workday rate of 1.7 and a recordable injury rate of 3.5 (for 346,000 work hours) vs. national averages of 3.7 for lost workdays and 7.6 for recordable injuries.
Ultimately, this work done safely will produce an innovative, elegant-looking bridge—described by some as the hands of Neptune reaching out of the Potomac to support the roadway—that will serve motorists in the nation’s capital and those traveling I-95 up and down the East Coast well into the 21st century.

Major contractors on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project

Project Management—Potomac Crossing Consultants consisting of Parsons Brinckerhoff, Rummel, Klepper & Kahl LLP (RK&K) and URS Corp.
Bascule—American Bridge Co. and Edward Kraemer & Sons, a joint venture.
Virginia Approaches—Virginia Approach Constructors, a Granite/Corman Joint Venture.
Maryland Approaches—Potomac Constructors LLC, organized by Edward Kraemer & Sons, American Bridge Co. and Trumbull Corp.
Maryland Interstates—G.A. & F.C. Wagman Inc. and John R. Driggs.
Virginia Interstates—Shirley Contracting, Old Dominion Demolition, Corman, R. R. Dawson and Tidewater Skanska Inc.

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