Survey Safety: Developing a Safety Plan

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Land surveying presents many unique challenges regarding safety in the workplace. Our workplace is always moving! We must envision a plan to take safety with us, to make it a member of our crew, so to speak, whether in a survey vehicle, on a large construction site, along the freeway, or out in the woods.

Dangerous Occupations
The Bureau of Labor Statistics evaluated the risk of fatal injury among occupations that had at least 20 deaths and 50,000 employed workers. Based on just the total number of deaths, truck drivers, farm occupations, construction laborers, supervisors and proprietors in sales occupations, and non-construction laborers had the highest fatality totals.

According to the National Safety Council website, fishers, timber cutters and loggers, airplane pilots and navigators, extractive occupations (mining, well drilling, etc.), and construction laborers were the most hazardous occupations. These statistics are based on death rates, which take into account the number of workers in each occupation group.

Some of the occupations listed above are closely intertwined with land surveying, and we often stand right alongside people in those occupations during the course of our work. We need to increase our odds of survival and decrease our risk of accidents under all conditions.

Vehicle Safety
Many of us spend a considerable amount of time on the road, and most of us would probably admit to being involved in one or more accidents during our driving career. The common sense keys to staying alive on the road include:
• Practicing defensive driving
• Wearing seat belts
• Obeying the rules of the road
• Using turn signals and flashers
• Using a strobe light on your survey vehicles
• Ensuring that cargo is secure and separated from passengers

Roadside Safety
As many of you can attest, the second most dangerous place for you and your crew to work is alongside a road or highway. It is important to adhere to the safety standards of the jurisdiction in which you’ll be working. At my company here in the state of Washington, we typically apply for and get a blanket WSDOT permit at the beginning of each year. If you even loosely adhere to WSDOT standards, you should be fine in any county or city location. The D OT websites have an overwhelming amount of information about signs, cones, flagging, and more. Resources are provided at the end of the article.

A True Story
Many years ago, when I was a party chief, I was set up in the center of a Tshaped intersection on a fairly busy county road. We had signs out, and my setup was in an island of three or four cones. I felt very safe, as we did this sort of work daily. We were running a control traverse for a mapping job. I must have been thinking a setup or two ahead, remembered something I needed that I had left in the van, and stepped out of my cones and right into the path on an oncoming car! Fortunately, he was turning, and had slowed to 15 or 20 mph, or I’d have been dead. He slammed on his brakes and barely missed me. He was shocked and angry, though apologetic. I was pretty shaken up. I was scared, naturally, and thankful to be alive, but mostly I was upset with myself for being so distracted and careless. Although this incident took place more than twentyfive years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. Don’t ever forget how dangerous it can be out there!

Wear safety vests at all times and use your signs and cones liberally and without fail. They just might save your life! It’s tragic, but I hear a story every three or four years about a surveyor killed alongside a road. Use your head–don’t become a statistic!

The Construction Site
The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) has had dramatic effects on industry. People have gone to great lengths to poke fun at OSHA, perhaps in retaliation for perceived extra expense, and/or extra troubles caused. Although OSHA is not without its faults, I believe thousands of lives have been saved and injuries averted as a result. General construction site safety measures include:
• Wearing hard hats
• Wearing appropriate footwear
• Wearing long pants and long sleeves
• Being especially vigilant on ladders and in stairwells
• Making sure equipment operators can see you and your crew; don’t allow operators to swing loads overhead
• Being mindful of your footing and watching where you step

Open Trenches
How many of you have ever worked in an open trench that was deeper than you are tall? If you weren’t scared and on edge, you haven’t been paying attention! It seems that at least once or twice a year we hear about a construction worker killed in a trench collapse. Surveyors generally aren’t in a position to force the contractor to use a box or to "V" his trenches. Similarly, surveyors have no business going down in trenches in the first place, period. I would simply refuse to go under any circumstances, unless proper safety procedures were in place, and I would advise others to do the same. Personally, I have wondered on occasion, if it would be better to suffocate in the trench or to be cut in half by the overzealous backhoe operator trying to save me!

Blasting Zones
I remember my first blasting job very well. I was a party chief staking a residential subdivision on a large rock outcropping. We had to rough stake all of the utilities first for blasting, then stake them again (and again) for construction. By the time all of the utilities were installed, the streets were reasonably close, though there were still random piles of rock everywhere. Even the side sewers and water stubs and meters required blasting. During utility and street construction, it looked like a war zone! It was not one of my favorite jobs! As for safety, I must commend all of the blasters with which I have worked. Although I suspect they are all frustrated pyromaniacs, they have been the most safety-conscious group I have ever encountered.

Off the Beaten Path

Safety must also be a consideration on preliminary surveys like boundary and topographic surveys on undeveloped property, timber inventory, wetland locations or other feasibility type surveys. These are the types of projects where crews often feel they can relax and not worry about cranes and cars whizzing past. There are, however, many other issues related to surveys of this type.

For example, you and your crew might be an hour or more off the pavement, and/or in a cell-free area. If an accident occurs in this situation, obviously it will take a long time to get help.

If the project is in the woods, there may be fallen timber to deal with, and slick logs if you’re working in rainy areas. Be particularly mindful of "widow makers," especially if the wind is blowing. If you’re working in the woods, probably you are using machetes and/or chain saws. We have probably all seen, or at least imagined, the damage that these two weapons of mass destruction can deliver.

The weather can cause many problems to surveyors. Generally we are accustomed listening to forecasts and dressing for the weather, though it can still surprise us on occasion. Don’t let a sudden change in the weather put you in a precarious situation. Be prepared! One item that often gets overlooked is sun exposure. A healthy tan is one thing–some consider it one of the perks of our profession–but too much sun can be painful in the
short term, and have severe long term effects. After many years of working out in the sun, I have had several spots removed from my face, shoulders and arms, and I still see a dermatologist regularly. A couple of years ago I lost a good friend and colleague to melanoma. He was a good surveyor, close to my age and with similar experience. Wear sunscreen, limit your exposure, and protect yourself.

Know the dangerous animals and plants in your areas of practice. I have personally had close encounters with everything from elk, bear and moose to rattlesnakes and snapping turtles. Don’t forget insects and spiders. One of my more unpleasant days involved a run-in with a nest of angry wasps. I no doubt angered them, but they certainly exacted their revenge. On the flora side, in various locales, I have encountered most types of cacti, poison ivy and poison oak, bull briars, blackberries, vine maple, scrub oak and devil’s club, to name but a few. Know their habits/habitats and learn how to protect yourself and your crews.

First Aid
Every truck should have a well stocked first aid kit and every crew member should be first aid trained. This is more restrictive than our state law, which requires only one member of each crew to be trained. However, I have often contemplated the following scenario: What if you are the only person on your crew who is trained in first aid, and you become injured, or possibly unconscious? Would you want your untrained crew members responsible for your care and possible survival? I think not.

Biohazard Safety
Wear gloves when dipping manholes and catch basins. Use an old rod (if possible) and rinse after use. Be particularly vigilant if you encounter used condoms, needles, chemical hazards, hazardous waste sites, drug labs, and last but not least, dangerous people! (This is a topic for another article, but mentioned here for completeness.)

I am reminded of the following story. A survey party was unknowingly trespassing on a private owner’s property. (You know the situation. As a field crew, often you don’t know who owns what. You’re out there simply trying to complete the assigned tasks.) A rather over-the-edge individual drove up in a pickup truck and skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust. He rolled down the window and pointed a shotgun at the party chief. In an angry and accusing tone, he asked, "Who’s in charge here?" Without missing a beat, the quick thinking party chief responded, "You are!" With that witty response, the landowner was taken off guard and the situation was promptly defused.

Online Resources
In addition to information found on state DOT websites, several additional websites provide valuable background and safety information:
• Federal Highway Administration:
• National Safety Council:

Author’s Note: This article is respectfully dedicated to the memory of my good friend and colleague, Charles Jay Gifford, LS, who succumbed to melanoma in 2001. This article is also dedicated to my friend and coworker, Michael Tillman, who was hit by a truck while surveying along a road, through no fault of his own, on March 1, 2004, and whose recovery is still continuing.

R. William Glassey has more than 30 years of survey experience, including many years of heavy construction, such as highways, airports, dams and railroads. He is OSHA certified and has served as Chief Safety Officer for the general contractor on large construction projects. Glassey holds survey licenses in Washington and Colorado, and is a past president of the Land Surveyors’ Association of Washington (LSAW). He is currently employed as a project surveyor for Barghausen Consulting Engineers, Inc., in Kent, Washington.

A 1.960Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE