Christopher Diaz is vice president of safety, health and environmental for Balfour Beatty US Buildings division in Florida and Eric Yates is environmental health and safety manager for the company's US civil division in North Carolina. Opinions are the authors' own.
Atlantic hurricane season is underway, and year after year, record-breaking severe weather impacts the nation's coastal areas near the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricanes can be unpredictable, and it takes a dedicated, experienced and well-prepared contractor to think ahead of a storm. From property and equipment damage to production downtime and recovery costs, severe weather not only threatens the successful delivery of construction projects, but also endangers the safety of people.
As an infrastructure contractor with jobs across the country, Balfour Beatty draws best practices and supports the collaborative execution of storm preparedness plans across a wide array of project types and geographies.
Through effective planning, leveraging innovative technologies and taking precautions to secure active construction sites, Balfour Beatty's Zero Harm approach to storm preparedness equips our teams for the unpredictable and keeps the safety our team members, partners, the public and our owner's projects top of mind.
Severe weather safety
At Balfour Beatty, storm preparedness planning always begins before putting the first shovel in the ground. Severe weather is often unpredictable, and storms have the potential to intensify and can rapidly change paths. This makes it vital for project teams to be well-versed in proactive storm procedures to quickly and safely act when the unexpected approaches.
Every part of our business across the nation experiences weather distinctly unique to the location of where we build. Our regional teams structure the delivery of projects based on the weather they may have to withstand during and after construction. The way we build in one part of the country is different from how we build in another, and our local teams' expertise in their respective areas has successfully and safely delivered projects through a variety of weather conditions.
Prioritizing the safety of team members, partners and the public always remains constant through Balfour Beatty's operations. During severe weather, our teams disseminate safety information to project teams and their families which includes emergency contacts, shelter locations and a checklist of actions to take and key supplies. Teams also ensure that potential high-danger equipment and materials are safely secured to mitigate risk of endangering those who may come in contact with our work.
Securing high-danger equipment
At any point in a project's schedule, teams may need to secure tower cranes, loose materials, electronics, computers, scaffolding, crawler cranes, lattice boom cranes and rebar columns in order to protect the workforce, the project and the public.
Tower cranes require an additional level of planning. When selecting the appropriate tower crane, teams must first determine if it can withstand wind speeds from a potential storm system. For Category 4 hurricanes like Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Florence, sustained winds can range between 130 mph and 156 mph according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. When facing storms of this magnitude, project teams must take appropriate precautions to safely secure or dismantle tower cranes.
Designed like a wind vane, the appropriate tower crane can withstand high wind speeds if it is allowed to rotate freely with the wind during a severe weather event. Every aspect of our operations is focused on wind cycles of storms and preparing for the safe mobility of cranes during severe weather.
Balfour Beatty teams collaborate with experienced engineers who help monitor construction equipment and can advise a crane's wind capabilities based on forecasted weather predictions. If a crane on site cannot withstand the projected wind speeds of an impending storm, we may choose to lower the overall height or even consider dismantling it.
Our team members account for the removal and erection of cranes in project schedules and budgets to mitigate any potential loss of production time or additional project costs. However, during significant storms, tower crane owners have multiple pieces of equipment to prepare in the forecasted area and dismantling and erecting incurs an additional cost. By incorporating these time-sensitive elements in the project planning stages and being aware of weather forecasts, Balfour Beatty ensures our teams are empowered to take quick and decisive action.
For highways, long-span bridges and other civil infrastructure projects, crawlers and lattice booms are logistically relocated out of low-lying areas, and lattice booms are secured to the ground to avoid storm damage. On water and wastewater projects, tower cranes may also be disassembled depending on forecasted winds and their engineered limits.
For hurricane, wind and rain events, supporting rebar columns are also a part of preparation for operations and require additional monitoring when a storm moves closer to a jobsite or if a storm changes its path.
Executing stormwater and erosion control devices
In the case of heavy rain, flooding and rising seawater issues, stormwater controls are necessary in keeping projects sustainable and safe from erosion and pollution.
For US Buildings operations, sandbags are placed around the perimeter of jobsites to divert turbid, muddy floodwater and prevent pollution in local waterway systems. Projects located in coastal plains also experience low and high tide sea levels that can rapidly cause flooding. Non-stop dewatering controls may be necessary to ensure infrastructure is safely out of the ground and protect against corroded building foundations.
It only takes a couple inches of rain for flooding to greatly impact the schedule and delivery of a construction project and these rain events don't necessarily have to be at the project site. Significant rain upstream can have an impact on our operations downstream. We find that researching historical data for flooding in the project area gives us a good idea on what we can expect.
Our infrastructure business relies heavily on our erosion control devices to mitigate erosion and sediment in low-lying areas. When experiencing heavy rain and flooding on our highway and bridge-span projects, we take additional measures to avoid silt entering waterways or large bodies of water."
Flooding and erosion can have devasting impacts on jobsites and require extensive and well-executed quality control measures to keep projects safe from damages. An all-hands-on-deck approach to mitigate risks of flooding, sediment and erosion is relied on to quickly dry out a construction site and return to work as soon as safely possible.
Improved forecasting and real-time monitoring systems have significantly enhanced storm preparedness. These innovative tools can alert our workforce nearly 10 days prior to severe weather, giving teams ample time to execute storm preparedness procedures.
Our teams have many years of experience in safely securing a construction site to protect our workforce, projects and the public. We review storm prep protocols at our jobsite locations throughout the year for all types of weather and several times a year for tropical storms and hurricanes. With the help of forecasting technology, we can accurately pinpoint a storm's location 24/7, and this is even more helpful if storm trajectories change so we can be agile in safely adjusting our operations accordingly.
Teams also leverage drone technology for aerial monitoring and inspections as storms unfold. Prior to initial impact, teams capture 360-degree videos and images of entire project sites and use this footage as a baseline to assess jobsites post-storm. Once storms have passed, drones are flown over jobsites to accurately pinpoint and document damage such as erosion, flooding and loose materials. The drone footage also provides key intelligence regarding when it is safe to allow our workforce to return to the jobsite.
Communication is a key priority during inclement weather. To effectively communicate storm forecasting, project status, safety protocols and the status of project operations, text alert systems are used to rapidly broadcast updates to our teams and partners located in areas of potential impact. In the instance of intense lightning, these communication tools aid in informing team members and partners of lightning stand downs and when to seek shelter prior to a storm approaching.
Planning for severe weather requires different methods of executing storm preparedness measures for highway, bridge, wastewater and building projects. Balfour Beatty collaborates across its U.S. operations teams as they experience severe weather across various geographies. These diversified attributes in our business lines create dynamic strategies that effectively and safely help us to deliver construction projects.