Construction Concerns: Construction Site Response

By Gregory Havel

Although most of our fire and EMS responses are to occupied facilities and public roadways, incidents at construction job sites are common enough that we need to be aware of potential hazards that are unlikely to exist elsewhere.

Access to the site is usually limited. When a building is complete, it will have paved parking areas and wide driveways. While under construction, the temporary road will be gravel (at best), often with ruts, and parking areas are frequently bare dirt. The site itself is subsoil with an irregular surface. Drainage is a problem, and it will be muddy when wet. Freezing only makes the situation worse unless it was graded just before the frost.

Photo 1 shows the surface of the ground at a job site that will support light four-wheel drive vehicles and heavy equipment with large tires, but it will also immobilize fire apparatus or ambulances even when terrain is dry.

(1) Photos by author.

 

On an emergency medical services (EMS) response to a construction job site, plan for additional personnel to assist. Plan to park your ambulance on solid ground, to carry your equipment a distance to the patient, and to carry your equipment and your patient back to the ambulance. Or, you could prearrange with the construction manager for assistance from contractor employees. Many of these have first-aid training, some may have emergency medical technician (EMT) certification, and most are willing to help a coworker who is in trouble. Either way, the ambulance crew should wear mud boots or fire boots, or they may not be welcome at the emergency room.

On a fire response, plan for additional help to respond. You may have to carry your tools and equipment a distance from your apparatus and to hand-lay hose. If the response is in a developing area, you may have to depend on a water tender shuttle since hydrants nearby may not yet be in service.

Recently, many communities have developed former dump sites or sanitary landfills that were capped years ago into parks and recreation areas. The municipality owns the land, which often is a large, unattractive, vacant area with grass, shrubs, and weeds. The growing community may also need more recreational facilities, and the solution is obvious to the government officials. Although one of these dump sites or landfills may have been closed for decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other state environmental agencies still require periodic monitoring of the groundwater through sampling wells and of the soil vapors through collection and vent piping.

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Photo 2 shows a soil vapor vent at a landfill that has been closed for 40 years. The vapors from some of these vents are oxygen-deficient when compared to ambient air and may contain a mixture of vapors and gases from the under-ground decomposition that is toxic (hydrogen sulfide) and flammable (from methane above its lower explosive limit). The groundwater recovered from the sampling wells is likely to be contaminated with residual toxic or corrosive household chemicals and to breed hazardous bacteria in numbers that would require the closing of a public beach as unfit for swimming.

(2)

 

Developing one of these sites into a recreation area requires some disturbance of surface and subsurface soils. Contractors working at one of these sites may be working under the protection of a safety plan developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the EPA, and the Department of Transportation’s HAZWOPER standards. All contractor personnel and emergency responders on the site should wear protective clothing to protect themselves from toxic and flammable vapors and from contaminated groundwater—especially if the construction work requires cutting through the clay cap into the layers of decaying refuse.

Renovation projects present additional challenges. Although you may be responding to paved parking areas and driveways, the floors inside the building may have trenches or other openings cut for installing new utilities. Photo 3 shows a concrete slab that has been opened to bury new plumbing pipes. These have been installed, inspected, and backfilled and are ready to have new concrete poured. Even so, the trenches are more than a foot (30.5 cm) wide and the concrete is six inches (15.2 cm) thick. Anyone who steps into one of these or trips on its edge will be injured. The location of the patient or the fire may require you to pass through an area like this, which is normally barricaded to keep people away.

(3)

 

Scaffolding is common on construction job sites (photo 4). Access to the upper levels is limited. You must develop—and practice—a plan that will get you to a medical or trauma patient on an upper level of a scaffold such as this so that you can provide timely care and transport.

(4)

 

Construction and remodeling job sites are common enough so that you should have a preincident plan in place for responding to them. Although every one of these incidents will be different, we need a basic plan that accomplishes the following:

  • Outlines the types and conditions of ground or temporary road surfaces on which you will not drive your emergency vehicles.
  • Describes alternative methods for reaching the incident location with your tools and equipment.
  • Describes alternative methods for moving a patient from one of these locations to an ambulance parked a distance away.
  • Describes the ways in which we plan to access the multiple levels that are usually present on a construction job site.

Any job site that involves special hazards such as work in a former landfill should have a more detailed preincident plan that includes the specific hazards at that location.

Although the construction workers at most job sites will stop work to assist injured coworkers and to make the site as accessible as possible to emergency responders, we must modify our responses, knowing that this time we may not be working from an ambulance or fire apparatus that is parked at the curb on a hard-surface street, that stairways and elevators suitable for carrying patients and emergency responders may not yet be completed, and that the fire hydrants on site may not yet be in service. We must also monitor these job sites to can keep our responders informed of changing conditions inside and outside the new or remodeled structure.

 

Download this article as a PDF HERE (774 KB)

 

Gregory HavelGregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.

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