Think of hazards faced by bridge workers and you’ll likely picture a beehive of construction activity on a new bridge. Once the work is done, the hazards disappear, or do they?
There’s a whole different side to working on bridges that potentially exposes workers to a variety of safety and health hazards—that of bridge maintenance.
Claudia Garland, an occupational safety engineer with Maine’s Department of Transportation, is proud that her employer exceeds US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for keeping workers safe and healthy.
Shut It Down
Garland has seen some horrendous conditions at bridge repair and maintenance worksites run by private contractors. And she has the authority to shut them down when violations place employees at significant risk for injury, illness or death. She has done so more than once.
“This isn’t a popular decision, but it is the right thing to do,” she says. “I’ve seen workers way up in the air on a plank with full body harnesses on and lanyards that were unattached (to anchor points). I shut that job down. It cost that company $80,000 in OSHA fines. I feel like I probably saved a life there.”
On a different jobsite, the same company was removing lead-based paint from a bridge. She watched horrified as an employee wearing no personal protective equipment (PPE) walked away covered in dust. “Private contractors would never be able to do the job cheaper than state entities if they followed the exact same safety requirements that we follow,” says Garland. “When I see workers (at private contractor sites) out there blasting a bridge deck and I see all kinds of dust in the air that we would not allow, I stop and try to find the lead person and express my concerns that they need to do something different. If I get brushed off, I will call my boss or I will call OSHA.”
Here are just a few of the hazards that people working in bridge maintenance face on the job:
Winds: High winds can create dangerous conditions for workers who are carrying objects such as large sheets of plywood that can turn into “sails” capable of throwing workers over the edge of a bridge.
Falls: If a fall arrest system isn’t properly adjusted, a maintenance worker on an overpass could potentially be left dangling in the path of oncoming traffic, particularly large trucks.
Frostbite and Heat Illness: Bridge maintenance doesn’t stop when temperatures get too hot or too cold. Workers may be exposed to frostbite, hypothermia or heat illness. Garland says she has actually seen workers suffering from heat illness in the winter, because they are doing physically demanding work such as jackhammering in sheltered, heated areas while wearing too many layers of clothing.
Silicosis: Airborne dust from sandblasting can expose workers to potentially deadly silicosis if they are not wearing appropriate respirators.
Lead Poisoning: If strict decontamination procedures are not in place, a worker could leave the worksite covered in lead dust and bring it home to his or her family. Children exposed to lead may have impaired mental functioning, while a pregnant woman could suffer a miscarriage. Adult workers who are continually exposed to lead may suffer kidney damage.
Motor Vehicle Accidents: Drivers often pay much more attention to what bridge maintenance workers are doing than keeping their eyes and minds on driving.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Maintenance workers doing their jobs in heated enclosures could potentially be exposed to deadly carbon monoxide from equipment operating nearby. Air quality in these enclosures should be monitored.
Repetitive Stress Injuries: When operating jackhammers or performing tasks on scaffolding, workers are often required to assume awkward positions which, when coupled with vibration exposure or forceful, repetitive motions, can lead to ergonomic injuries.
Controlling the Hazards
There are three ways that workers’ potential for injury or death on the job can be minimized: Engineering controls, administrative (work practice) controls and use of appropriate PPE.
Engineering Controls: An example of engineering controls in bridge maintenance would be using a vacuum system equipped with HEPA filters to ensure that paint flecks containing lead don’t become airborne, and using barricades to keep traffic away from bridge workers.
Administrative Controls: Work rotation to reduce the amount of time that a worker was exposed to a hazard such as noise or extreme cold is an example of an administrative control.
Personal Protective Equipment: PPE such as respirators or foam earplugs would be the final layer of protection for a bridge maintenanceworker.
Unfortunately, Garland has had some heart-stopping moments wondering if her daughter, Jimly, was caught in the collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13.
Garland didn’t immediately know if her daughter had been caught in the collapse, which occurred during rush hour. Jimly had been on the bridge just 10 minutes before it failed. It took Garland several attempts to get through jammed telephone lines and determine that her daughter was safe.
“That bridge collapse caused a lot of state governments to do full-scale structural integrity inspections of bridges and identify which ones needed immediate attention,” she says.