Safety a top concern with any campus construction project


With all the construction projects currently happening on the Pittsburgh campus and with even more coming, Bill Santa’s job is pretty busy.

Santa is in charge of construction project safety for Pitt’s Facilities Management team. He gave a presentation on Feb. 17 to the Senate’s Plant Utilization and Planning Committee about how he and the Facilities team identify problems, and he exhorted everyone on campus: “If you see something, say something.”

Scott Bernotas, associate vice chancellor for Facilities Management, said that in the past five years — particularly since Santa joined the team three years ago — Pitt has gone from “an average at best safety program to a world-class construction safety program.” This is a very timely topic, he said, since the University is about to embark on its largest capital construction project ever.

The norm now is for construction fence improvements that provide both better optics and improved safety. Each contractor who is working on campus has to provide a safety plan, Santa said, which the University continually questions and reviews until it’s deemed the best possible.

Cranes are a specific concern, and according to Bernotas there are several on campus at any given time. In 2015, shortly before Bernotas came to Pitt, a crane fell on Langley Hall; luckily, no one was hurt. Now crane operators have to provide a plan for where the crane will be, where the trucks will be parked, how pedestrian traffic will be rerouted and how the exclusion zone will be policed.

“Now contractors know that they have to comply, so they come prepared,” Bernotas said.

Assessing the risks

With any safety hazard, Santa said, they look at the severity of a possible injury, the probability of an accident occurring and the number of people who are exposed to the hazard. An icy entranceway that hundreds of people pass through each day will be much higher on the priority list for repairs than a back door only used once a month.

A hazard is first recognized or reported, evaluated for severity and then work is done to control it, either through engineering controls, protective equipment or administrative fixes, such as training or policies.

“Our challenge at FM is to use the same systematic approach no matter how the hazard is reported,” Santa said.

He used as an example someone slipping on oil in one of the department’s facilities. Sure, cleaning up the oil would reduce the hazard, but where did the oil come from? Maybe a forklift had a loose bolt. Why was the bolt loose? There wasn’t any preventative maintenance plan in place to check it. In the end, they are looking for the root causes of problems, and making sure they’re not taking shortcuts that could cause problems later on.

They also do safety audits of contractors to make sure they’ve corrected any potential problems, and they have a safety review committee to look at incidents, audits, safety training, safety gaps and special topics. A high hazard list is compiled each week to report any new projects, particularly crane operations. Bernotas said the Pathfinders also get the list to make sure they avoid those areas while giving tours.

Santa has drilled into the Facilities staff that he or one of the senior leaders has to be alerted when any new contractor comes on campus. Once, a contractor wanted to bore a couple holes on Posvar plaza. Santa was alerted and said to wait. After looking at Pitt’s own utility maps, he found that where they wanted to bore would have hit a high-voltage underground line and a chilled water line.

“Now everyone knows that they need to contact Bill about these projects,” Bernotas said.

Personal safety

Facilities Management also is partnering with six students in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences to do diagnostics on the reported safety incidents to try to prioritize training and administrative policies.

For instance, they found that many injuries for the custodial staff happened early in the morning, when the workers were doing some of their heaviest chores — lifting mop buckets and full garbage bags.

The students designed some early morning stretching to help prevent these problems that they demonstrated at a construction site on Baum Boulevard. For custodial workers, one simple engineering solution was used — holes were drilled in large garbage receptacles, so that when the full bag is removed a vacuum isn’t created making it harder to lift.

Ergonomics also continues to be a big complaint for Pitt workers sitting at desks. The Environmental Health and Safety website now has online information to improve your workstation setup and a place to request an assessment.

The safety review committee currently is looking at hoist and sling safety and rooftop fall protections.

Santa said years ago he was in Lancaster and read in the newspaper that there had been a dozen people injured in snow blowing incidents over the weekend — by getting leashes tangled in them or reaching in to unclog the blades.

“If that article would have been published the Friday before, you would have had a heightened awareness,” he said. “So that's the analogy of Facilities Management. We're trying to catch those snowstorms before you reach into the snowblower.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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