Safety: Communication, Communication, Communication

Executive Summary: To be successful in heavy/civil construction, it is imperative to have a rudimentary understanding of engineering concepts. However, more often than not the primary reason for a project failure is the human factor versus gross misunderstanding or misapplication of an engineering principle. One of my personal experiences was in a crane failure, and one of the world’s most impactful events killed 114 people.

Communication is key. If you’re new to business, here’s three things you need to know to succeed: communication, communication, communication. This is how life works at the grocery store, on a customer service call, or especially in the day-to-day with your significant other.

Building a construction project is no different. A construction project involves numerous parties: the owner, the engineer and/or architect, and the contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers. Each of these parties must communicate effectively to pull off a successful project in the way of schedule, cost, and safety.

Technical skills. In pursuit of my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I was not the sharpest student in the class. One of the reasons I pursued a graduate degree in civil engineering was to better tune these skills and to have a stronger grasp on the field of civil engineering.

Out in the real world, I learned that more important than understanding the complexities of, say, calculus or structural dynamics or Euler’s equation, was just ensuring clear communication between parties. What I learned was that the dominating causal factor in project failures of all types (not just safety) was human communication, not an upper level technical engineering concept.

My story. My story combines successful communication and basic engineering knowledge. I was the project manager on a job with a large crawler crane and we had the mishap of snapping a pendant line. The pendant lines run in parallel from the gantry (above the crane cab) to the boom tip.

The line breaking was not a big deal. But could have been. I was notified of the line break and made certain to not have the operator lower the boom. Lowering the boom with only one pendant line can cause an eccentricity in the boom resulting in torsion and undesired beam column behavior. Fortunately, we were able to fix the line while the boom was still in the air without incident. That was the result of excellent teamwork and communication on a project site.

A catastrophe.  In July, 1980 there was an awful engineering failure resulting in 114 deaths. The incident took place inside the newly constructed Hyatt Regency in Kansas City when two hanging walkways collapsed during a party. The failure was an engineering one – the steel connection did fail – but, the real problem was communication. The conceptual design for structural support of the walkways was provided by the structural engineer, but the final connection design was never thoroughly or adequately reviewed and approved by the structural engineer. An assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers as to compliance with its Code of Ethics resulted in their statement which follows: “The engineer of record attributed the fatal design flaw to a breakdown in communication.”

Conclusion. Never be afraid to ask “the dumb question” or to clarify. I will often repeat myself in written communication so that it is crystal clear as to what I am trying to say. The same should follow in verbal communication as well, along with an acknowledgement and restatement of the message. It could save time, money, or even a life.