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Sound the Alarm: How Industrial Contractors Can Plan For a Fire-Safe Environment on Every Job

Author: Ryan Donovan

National Fire Protection Week, observed October 3-9 this year, is a good reminder of the importance of being prepared for fires on industrial construction jobsites.

From 2010-2014, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported an average of 8,440 fires per year in buildings under construction, renovation and demolition, resulting in more than $300 million in direct property damage. As an ever-present danger during construction, fire prevention and response planning should undergird every aspect of project planning.

Heat, fuel, and oxygen are the trifecta of fire potential, and active construction sites tend to have all three in abundance. Industrial construction projects contain many opportunities for fires because of combustible materials, welders, torches, and other hot work and electrical equipment on-site, and because fire prevention, detection, and response systems are usually among the last installations. Fire protection and prevention planning is covered in OSHA standard 1926-150, and can help guide industrial contractors in preparation.

Here’s a brief list of fire protection best practices. Please Note: this is only an overview and should not replace in-depth investigation and planning.

Risk and hazard analysis is the starting point for a fire-safe worksite. Site assessment should identify sources of ignition, such as smoking cigarettes, electrical equipment, flammable liquids and gases, trash and debris, oxygen sources, site airflow and any special considerations such as hot work and arc flash potential (read more about arc flash here >).

Identifying those at risk comes next. Because crews are exposed to varying risks at different locations on a job, there is no one size fits all fire safety solution. Know where workers are located and the specific concerns for each area, including access to safe evacuation routes. Remember that fire may cause structural collapse; be aware of crews working above or below any given location and plan accordingly.

Use your analysis and evaluations to reduce fire risk by controlling sources of ignition and the availability of fuel and excess oxygen. Inspection and clean-up of work areas should happen on a daily schedule.

Document your findings and use them to train workers according to the comprehensive, project-specific fire safety plan you have created. Refresher training may be carried out as needed.

Constant monitoring and reevaluation are absolute requirements for a safe work environment. Construction sites are in a constant state of change, and what worked at one point in the process will likely change as the project progresses.

While all these are important considerations, a few merit particular attention.

Hot work

Hot work is a common feature of most every construction project. Potential hazards from fumes, gases, high voltages, sparks, and heat are ever-present and require specialized knowledge, training, personal protective equipment (PPE), and procedures for safety.

An effective control program for hot work areas includes assessment of risks, an inspection of equipment (including PPE), placement and inspection of fire extinguishers appropriate to the job, and permits issued under the OSHA Hot Work Permit program. A designated person should head up the program and remain on-site a minimum of 30 minutes after hot work has ended.

Fire reporting

In the event of a fire, a quick response can mean the difference between a minor incident and major losses. Crews should be trained in fire response and a designated person and backup person should be responsible for sounding the jobsite alarm and notifying the appropriate fire department. Identifying the proper fire department and communicating with them about the project and location specifications must be completed before the project gets underway, along with any changes to those specifications as work moves forward. Never assume the designated fire department knows where the project is located; industrial contractors must assess and confirm the department’s understanding of the project’s location and how they will respond in the event of a fire.

Evacuation

Fire safety procedures not only focus on preventing and fighting worksite fires but also include planning for crew member evacuations. Evacuation plans should be created only after a thorough assessment of the area under consideration and communicated to all crew members. Signage that clearly shows evacuation routes should be posted prominently throughout the worksite. Establish a designated point for crew members to gather in the event of fire and use a checklist to account for every person.

As employee-owners, Lee Contracting places a high value on job safety for every project. Contact us today to learn how our self-performing capabilities enable us to control every project aspect and can help you complete your next job safely and successfully.

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Common Electrical Safety Issues We See as Industrial Contractors (& How to Avoid Them)

Authors: Dennis Mosher and Ryan Donovan

With tighter budgets and increasing regulation, industrial contractors are taking a closer look at everything that happens on their projects. While searching for ways to improve project performance and outcomes, remember to include crew safety in the process.

Contractors are keenly aware of potential losses from safety incidents. A serious occurrence can result in citations, fines and lawsuits, and can even affect a firm’s reputation and ability to bid.

By their very nature, industrial construction projects carry a high level of potential hazards, and it’s ultimately the responsibility of the employer to protect the safety and health of their employees. Exposure to uncontrolled electrical energy is a significant source of injury and one of the top four causes of workplace fatalities.

With the importance of worker safety in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more common electrical safety issues.

Energizing Switchgear

Energizing and de-energizing switchgear is a common source of electrical hazard. Using a comprehensive switchgear pre-energization checklist will help mitigate potential hazards. Energizing and de-energizing switchgear also carries the potential for arcing hazards (see below), and should be dealt with through standardized procedures, including a lockout/tagout (LOTO) program.

Arc Flash

Imagine an airborne burst of energy with temperatures that can reach 35,000 degrees F in a split second. Arc flashes are always a danger for industrial electrical contractors and should be high on the list of daily pre-work checks. Before working in any area, especially around switchgear, a risk assessment should be conducted. When a possible arcing hazard has been identified, crew members should follow established procedures, such as wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), using hot sticks to open cabinets and providing warning signs, floor striping and cone barricades.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI)

GFCIs detect ground faults and interrupt electrical current when a fault is detected, limiting the duration of shock. While a proven method of decreasing incident rates, these devices are often overlooked or used incorrectly. GFCIs should always be the first thing plugged into an outlet, followed by the extension cord or tool.

Extension Cords

Most any worksite involves a lot of electrical cabling. As each of these carries the possibility of transmitting electrical energy, it’s imperative that extension cords be inspected every time they are used. Any damaged cords should be cut in half, discarded and replaced.

On-Site Utilities

There are a lot more underground utilities than you might expect when drilling within a manufacturing plant, or any areas between buildings connected to the same grid. One of the first tasks of any project involves finding and marking these utilities. Underground surveys should be conducted by the contractor before starting work, as plans and other information supplied by project owners may be outdated.

Not Just Equipment

The human element will always be a factor in job site safety. As crew members get more familiar with their job requirements, it becomes easier to get caught up in the process. This may lead to less attention paid to what’s going on around them and overlooked safety concerns.

Keeping crew members safe on the job is never one and done. It requires a genuine commitment at every level of the firm, from the top down. Job safety begins with initial training of new hires and continues with (at least) annual refreshers and pre-project assessments along with daily safety checklists. Establishing and following job-specific safety procedures will help keep safety top of mind for every member of your crew.

At the end of the day, what’s good for crew members is also good for industrial electrical contractors and their customers. Firms that care for their people will find that caring carrying over into the quality of the work they do.

Our best advice for electrical safety? Instill in all your crew members the idea that “everything is live—protect yourself accordingly.”

Have a challenging industrial electrical project on your shortlist? Talk with the experts at Lee Contracting about the benefits of doing business with a single-source industrial electrical contractor.

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Overcoming Volatility in Industrial Contracting Supply Chains

Shutdowns. Layoffs. Plant closures. Projects on-hold. And now, shortage-driven price inflation. The global pandemic has thrown the entire world into chaos.

In the industrial contracting space, the most noticeable problem in recent months has been price and supply volatility in materials. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 84% of contractors face at least one material shortage. And for 46% of industrial contractors, material shortages are having a high impact on projects.

A Perfect Storm

When the pandemic took hold in 2020, shutdowns across the board brought the nation, the economy and our industry to a near standstill. Almost overnight, many industrial contracting projects were put on hold, although work did continue in regions of the country where construction was considered an essential industry. Those projects that did move forward faced extended lead times and often severe restrictions on how work was performed.

From the start, manufacturers began shutting down operations. This quickly led to shortages of materials for construction. The effects were highlighted in steel production, as mills were closed around the world.

With the easing of restrictions, buyers have seen the basic law of supply and demand showcased, in that as demand for materials exceeds supply, prices rise accordingly. In industrial construction, demand is still running ahead of supply, fueled by owners who are scrambling to restart projects that had been put on hold. Additionally, companies are also moving rapidly to get new projects underway.

Even with the challenges, the construction industry has been somewhat less affected than many others. Many industrial contractors are experiencing high workloads, both in backlogged work from 2020 and projects whose timelines have been accelerated.

A New Normal?

The short-term situation has seen major changes in the way projects unfold, especially in the bidding process. Because of pricing volatility, the old norm of 30-60-90 day quotes has been replaced by quoted prices that are now only good until the end of the day due to the rapidity of price changes. The effects are felt on both the owner and contractor side, introducing a level of uncertainty not seen before in heavy industrial construction. 

Project owners and industrial contractors don’t expect the situation to ease for at least another year. And even as supplies slowly become more available, labor shortages continue to delay projects. For example, it’s not unusual for loaded trucks to sit for weeks before delivery, due to a lack of drivers. At least in the short term, price and supply volatility are expected to be the norm.

The appearance of the Delta variant has once again put the nation on edge. Its effects on the reopening of the U.S. economy are, of course, currently unknown. But even if the variant should have a significant impact, the effects are not expected to be as severe as those of the original pandemic, because industrial contractors and suppliers have learned how to operate effectively under adverse conditions.

A Light in the Tunnel

As industrial contractors closely monitor the ever-changing construction landscape, supply challenges are being addressed by aggressive increases in materials inventories. Leading firms with solid relationships with suppliers and strong buying power are maintaining higher inventory levels and working with stakeholders to keep them up to date on supply and price issues.

This is a boon for project owners, who can benefit from partners that have seen the writing on the wall and made significant inventory investments. Contractors who are unable or unwilling to risk increasing their materials inventory will likely be less competitive going forward.

In addition to our massive in-house inventory, Lee Contracting has a dedicated team of buyers scouring the world for the best combinations of price and supply, ensuring we have the inventory available now to complete your project without delay. Contact us today to discuss the benefits to your next project.