Implementing Building Safety at Every Step

NREL Energy Systems Integration Facility. Photo courtesy of Frank Ooms.
By Matt Ogle, Senior Safety Manager, JE Dunn Construction
Matt Ogle

Construction is a leading industry for worker injuries, a reality that top construction firms work tirelessly to change. In a rather dangerous industry, how do we effectively address worker safety and act proactively in a way that aims to minimize risk? One method is to achieve a culture of safety through the implementation of Prevention through Design (PtD), previously known as Safety by Design. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines PtD as the prevention and control of occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities through the effort of designing out hazards to workers.

For this approach to work, PtD must be at the forefront of a project and not be an afterthought. It should extend from the beginning of construction, through the opening of a facility. The decisions made in the design phase can have repercussions for years to come, so it is important to begin the thought process early on. This approach is effective on all project types but is especially advantageous to complex industries such as advanced manufacturing and aerospace. These industries have been leaders in the application of the PtD process and we are now starting to see PtD trickle down to commercial facilities. In a more commercial setting, there is an increased presence of members of the public, so it is very important to integrate safety into these facilities to protect all people within the building. The more that you can design safety into the facility, the better it is for everyone.

PtD is a shared responsibility between the facility owner, general contractor and the architect. It is much easier to act proactively than to fix something that is deemed to be unsafe after the fact. A great project example in which PtD was implemented particularly well was at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) Energy Systems Integration Facility; a 181,621-square-foot, multi-level office, data center, and high bay research laboratory. All parties involved such as EH&S (Environmental, Health, and Safety) staff, facilities personnel, the architect (SmithGroup), and the general contractor (JE Dunn Construction) identified potential future risks of injuries/incidents during the design phase to proactively design safer solutions. Since this was implemented so early on, NREL now reaps the benefits of the in-place safety systems throughout their facility today.

If we look at the NREL Energy Systems Integration Facility, we can pick out a few design elements that the team executed very well in terms of PtD. The design of the facility orients hazardous activities away from public and staff areas. Offices are placed in the front of the building and more dangerous functions such as hydrogen testing are executed towards the back of the facility. Additionally, the project includes parapet walls along the roof perimeter to minimize fall risk and elevated walkways allow public visitors to view activities safely above hazardous lab spaces. This not only added an element of safety during construction but also benefited NREL after the facility had opened.

To initiate PtD, it is crucial to foster buy-in. It is extremely important to solicit end-user input to understand facility needs early on. This can be achieved by promoting interaction between the owner and design team to understand what they value and then using these ideas to build a place that is both safe and enjoyable to work in. Another effective way to foster buy-in is by involving the owner in leadership walks during the construction phase to capture input from boots-on-the-ground workers to ensure that safe practices are carried throughout the life of the project. Seven out of ten injuries happen from the result of behavior, so focusing on educating craft workers and stressing the importance of safety is important to everyone. It is also important to train leadership to be approachable so that when a concern is raised, workers feel empowered to address issues.

Much like sustainability, we have found that PtD is simply the right way to build a project. While it may not always be labeled PtD, many of the practices we have begun to implement during a collaborative design and construction process demonstrate the principles of PtD. Upfront, there may be more associated costs, but these costs are ultimately offset by lowering the possibility of injury and litigation in the future. Beginning every project with PtD makes sense from both a cost and a safety standpoint. The more experience that construction teams get in this practice, the more it becomes second nature to be able to help design teams with possible creative solutions that maximize safety. As an industry, we need to be better at sharing our success stories of PtD with our construction peers. If you do everything right in construction it should lead to a pretty boring day, but it is important to discuss what makes for a perfectly boring day. There is value in sharing positive lessons learned to continue to grow as an industry one project at a time.


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