San Francisco Public Utilities Commission safety initiative achieves milestone on one of the nation’s largest water infrastructure programs.


The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is in the midst of a huge 15-year program to repair, replace and upgrade critical water infrastructure. Since the bulk of the construction work started in April 2009, more than 11,000 workers have recorded 7.5 million hours without a major injury or lost time accident.

It’s a key milestone in the $4.8 billion Water System Improvement Program, one of the nation’s most expensive and complex municipal water improvement efforts. About 85 percent completed, work will continue through the end of 2018. There are 83 separate projects, each with a primary contractor, along with a large number of subcontractors. But everyone is involved in the same “Think Safety, Work Safely” program.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone came home from the job safe as we rolled out the larger projects,” says Alan Johanson, SFPUC deputy director of construction of the Water System Improvement Program. Those projects included potentially hazardous work around water treatment facilities, dam construction, pipe replacement, seismic improvements and tunneling.

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Safety requirements were included in the requests for proposal and contract specifications for each project, and were discussed at all pre-bid meetings. “We require them to have a dedicated, site-specific health and safety plan and a safety representative on the project at all times,” says Johanson. “They are required to submit a jobs hazard analysis so we can review and provide feedback.”

Having safety professionals assigned to each project allows them to work closely with the construction management team from the city, its consultants and the contractors. In the past, the city found that often the person in charge of safety for the contractor was also the project manager responsible for getting the work done on time and on budget. That can create conflicts in establishing priorities between safety and schedule pressure.

Johanson says his construction management group doesn’t serve as the “police” looking for violations and mistakes. Instead, they work with all the safety people, contractor management and workers as one team. The first agenda item for every meeting on each of the 83 projects is a safety review of that project along with anything learned from others. The total recordable injury incidence rate is just 2.1, compared to a construction industry average of 3.8.

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“Sometimes people have an assumption that doing safety, or any task, properly is going to slow them down. Actually, the reverse is true,” says Dan Wade, director of the Water System Improvement Program. “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. If you slow down and make sure that everybody is safe and does their tasks properly, that greatly reduces the risk that you’re going to have a disruption. You’re going to get it done faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively.”

He adds that people can tell whether safety messages are sincere. “We made it clear that we’re serious, actually going through the details of safety plans, procedures, crane lifts — making sure the calculations have been done. All of those details add up, and people got a sense that we really are serious.”

One such case was an early lockout/tagout situation. While done properly, not all of the paperwork had been filed prior to work proceeding. “We made that a big deal, brought it to a high level, and people recognized it was serious,” says Wade. “If the paperwork isn’t in, we can’t assume that everyone is safe.”

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While recognizing the safety achievement, Wade says the main message was to stay vigilant. “The minute people start getting a little smug about success in safety is the minute people start to relax. The contractors are proud of their own safety records and the workers are as well. It really boosts morale for everybody and that brings a level of energy to the construction site, and to the whole program. It’s somewhat intangible, but you can feel it.”

Editor's note: For more about SFPUC’s Water System Improvement Plan project, see the November 2014 issue of Municipal Sewer & Water magazine.

Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

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