Site Safety Over (and under) the Sea

About the Series

The ‘Unique Construction’ interview series takes a deeper look into the challenges faced by unique construction companies and managers. Throughout this series interviews with construction professionals and experts from these fields will give readers first-hand accounts of and deep insights into the safety, security, and management challenges faced by these remarkable industries and individuals. The ‘Unique Construction’ series begins with ‘Site Safety Over (and under) the Sea.’ It features Kevin Wheatcroft, the Safety Director at Advanced American Construction and overviews the shocking safety challenges of a marine construction company.

Over 96 people died while building the Hoover Dam. Many of these individuals were “high-scalers,” workers that climbed down the canyon wall using only a small rope to jackhammer and blast away loose rock. Frequently, these workers fell into the waters below, sometimes to their death. Others were injured or killed from falling rocks above. These were obvious hazards, yet surprisingly, protective equipment was not freely provided. To ensure their safety, the dam workers had to create their own head protection. Dipping cloth hats into sticky tar, they used the Nevada desert sunlight to warm and harden the tar into makeshift hard hats. The equipment and environmental challenges of working on the Hoover Dam were second to none in marine construction.

Thankfully, much has changed since the 1930’s construction of the Hoover Dam. Mainly, the formation of The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971. On marine construction sites today, safety nets and safety harnesses are required. Life vests and life preservers are always on-site. Adequate toilets and wash stations must be readily available, and companies need to submit health and safety plans. The marine construction processes have significantly changed too. Modern companies use 3D visualization systems to understand and survey surrounding waters and coasts before and during the construction process to detect potential hazards. Before starting some projects, advanced cofferdams are used to pump out water from the site. During nighttime construction, boat lighting and detection is used to prevent collisions. Some companies, like the one interviewed in this article, even complete underwater construction with specialized diving sets. Needless to say, the industry has seen considerable advancement from tar hard hats.

Despite these significant improvements, however, marine construction safety still challenges even the most experienced safety managers. This construction niche ranks as one of the most hazardous occupations, largely due to the unpredictable nature of the weather. In the winter, water might freeze, breaking equipment and creating major slip hazards. In rainy seasons, the wind can get heavy and cause long delays in the construction schedule. In some areas, tide swings can be up to 12-feet tall and powerful enough to rock ships. As if weather was not challenging enough, local citizens sometimes live, work, and walk close to or on worksites, requiring safety managers to focus beyond just their own workers. With these many potential hazards, it is necessary for contractors to be prepared for each step in the marine construction process. Yet, there is no singular construction process in the marine niche. From coastal homes to expansive bridges to underwater pipelines, the situations contractors face change drastically from site to site. To ensure each unique site is safe, contractors must look at the weather, local environment, bystanders, and water accessibility, amongst countless other factors. Undoubtedly, marine construction safety is a unique and demanding niche of the industry.

Based out of Portland, Oregon, Kevin Wheatcroft is the Safety Director at Advanced American Construction. His company is a recognized leader in the Safety and Marine Construction fields. Wheatcroft has been a safety professional for over 16 years, having had the opportunity to take positions as a safety chairman, safety director, and safety consultant. It is fair to say he is an expert in safety.

In character with his profession, Wheatcroft conducted his interview on a tugboat. While discussing the uniqueness of the marine construction industry, we were treated to the background sounds of seagulls squawking and water whooshing. From stories of 12-foot-tall tide swings to underwater explosions, Wheatcroft had lots to share about his experiences in marine construction.

Interview Feature:

What are examples of safety challenges you face from being a marine construction company?

Wheatcroft explained how his three years as Safety Director for Advanced American have been challenging. “The water adds a whole layer of risk,” he stated, especially with commercial diving. Welding steel underwater can produce combustible gas. If too much gas is trapped in a small area, the result can be massive underwater explosions. On top of that, divers face risks when surfacing, and need hyperbaric chambers for recompression. If the divers come up too fast, there is a real threat for them getting bends, a decompression sickness. Wheatcroft explained, “it can mess divers up if they get the bends and do not know how to treat it.” The divers have to be sure to get the correct oxygen treatment, or else it can be life-threatening. Overall, divers face a workplace fatality rate nearly 40x higher than the national average across industries.

Wheatcroft pointed out many over-the-water challenges too. He explained that his company uses “small steel boats, 20 ft long workboats.” The risk of smashing hands between the boats or a steel piling of another boat is always on a worker’s mind. Falling out of the boat and drowning is a big concern as well. With these many risks, Wheatcroft uses specialized Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), like life jackets, and techniques and training to keep his teams safe.

What kind of training do workers need? Are there gaps in knowledge between you and the teams?

With all these risks, workers need copious training. Every member of the diving team, for example, needs certification for commercial diving. This can take around eight months of preparation. They must also receive extensive medical training. Divers need to know how their bodies will react underwater, and how to keep themselves safe if an accident does occur. “There is a lot that goes into it,” Wheatcroft said. While being able to watch from a tv screen, he still finds it hard to understand all the hazards commercial divers face underwater. He explained, “you cannot know exactly what they face without being down there with them.”

What does the weather look like while completing projects? How is it an obstacle?

Like with any marine contractor, the weather is a major concern of Wheatcroft. Last September, he oversaw a project on the windiest section of the Columbia River Gorge. “The wind was just blowing,” Wheatcroft explained. The whole project fell days behind schedule simply because they could not use the cranes in the wind. In some other bays, the tides become a big factor. Some workers have to fight tides 10–12 feet tall, or worse, according to Wheatcroft.

Other than the weather and ordinary concerns from the water, are there other unique challenges you face?

Beyond concern for the crew, Wheatcroft has a lot to think about with pedestrians. Currently, Advanced American is replacing access for the commercial fishing fleet in Newport. One of the requirements of the jobs is to give fishermen access to the [dock/port] 100% of the time throughout the 5–6 month job. Thus, the safety of the fisherman, or whoever else may be around, plays a big role in the construction process. In Newport, they have hundreds of people walking up and down the boardwalk. This adds an element overlooked by many when thinking about the responsibilities of marine contractors.

How does your construction process differ from in-land construction?

When working with water, contractors are forced to come up with clever solutions to solve their building problems. When constructing bridges over the water, it is often too difficult to build a temporary track as one might do on land. For one, support systems cannot be transported by truck underneath the bridge like what may happen on land. Instead, the building materials need to be transported over the water. Wheatcroft maintains that on land strategies are “just not feasible” over the water, so alternative strategies must be used. His company hires subcontractors to drill foundation piers with steel and concrete. Once the foundational piers are in place, they then use a big barge to float the 330-foot bridge span. The visual of sending a multi-million-pound bridge up a river is extraordinary. Using cranes, the company lifts the bridge pieces one by one from the barges to on top of the foundational piers.

What do you find is the most interesting and exciting thing about your job?

The construction process, with all its complications and responsibilities, is what Wheatcroft finds most interesting and exciting. While on projects with drastically different sites and setbacks, he gets to see water problem-solving skills at work, and witness individuals figure out safe solutions to the challenges of water.

Why is construction safety important to you?

“It’s safety — period. The rules are not to make your job harder. The rules are there to make you go home safe at the end of the day. We all work for our time off, the way I look at it. There’s an old song, right, ‘Working for the Weekend.’ I think that’s very true with anybody, you know. I don’t come to work just so I can pay my bills and keep the electricity on. I come to work so I can have enough money and time to spend with my family… Anybody can get hurt, whether you’re at home, whether you’re on the job, injuries happen and they can all really impact your quality of life. Keeping people safe, whether they understand it or not, is for the future and for their families as well. I have seen some pretty bad injuries and have seen how they can really impact people’s lives. And, almost everybody out here in this trade gets paid by the hour. So, let’s take the time to do it right, do it safe… No amount of money would make me want to get injured for the rest of my life, and not be able to, you know, walk around or hike, hang out with your kids or grandkids, or whatever it may be.”

Marine construction holds safety challenges that most construction professionals will never have to face. Wheatcroft may have summarized it best and most simply: “the water just adds a whole layer of risk.” Perhaps the most interesting part of these unique challenges is the ability for these companies to find ways to adapt and overcome with one-of-a-kind solutions. From using hyperbaric chambers to huge barges, maritime construction companies like Advanced American Construction find ways to complete their projects over and under the water safely.

Thanks again to Kevin Wheatcroft and Advanced American Construction for participating in the “Unique Construction” interview series.

The “Unique Construction” Series will be back with more captivating interviews with individuals across the construction industry. Stay tuned for future posts and updates!

More about the interviewee:

Wheatcroft has been a safety professional for 16 years and is based out of Portland, Oregon. Before becoming a safety professional, he was a truck mechanic, welder, fabricator, and millwright. He worked in a large fabrication company located outside of Portland and was on the safety committee. Soon, he came to be the committee chairman. He spoke of a particular incident during that time when “one of their machinists dropped a pretty sharp chuck of stainless steel on his hand from about 8'’ or a foot — maybe higher.” Unfortunately, the machinist cut his fingers off at a 45-degree angle. Wheatcroft researched the incident, striving to make a game plan that would ensure it did not happen again.

What did he find? The company he worked for was not doing any kind of training on the equipment the machinist had used. Furthermore, they were not using the equipment according to the manufacturer’s instructions. He wrote up a training program and saw positive safety results. Having done a good job on the mitigation, the company asked if he wanted to be the new safety leader. After eight years of being the Safety Director, Wheatcroft became a Safety Consultant. As a safety consultant, he worked with Associated General Contractors in Oregon-Columbia. Later, he ended up at Advanced American Construction and works as the Safety Director there today.


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