Slow down underground to avoid accidents

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RaShawn L. Austin is the executive health and safety director at Holbrook, New York-based Forte Construction, a general contracting firm involved in transit and public works projects throughout downstate New York.

Opinions are the author’s own.

America’s most populated cities are known for their fast pace of life, and their construction projects are expected to follow suit.

With demands for affordable housing and improved infrastructure soaring, the discourse so often revolves around the speed of development, with critics ready to point out any delays, shortages and cost overruns getting in the way.

Bald man with glasses and a short beard and mustache wearing a grey sweater.

RaShawn L. Austin

Courtesy of Butler Associates


As we celebrate Construction Safety Week, it’s a critical reminder that speed is no substitute for safety. The hazards on a construction site are manifold, and it is crucial that today’s construction professionals focus on the best ways to mitigate them.

In a bustling urban area like New York City, a similar level of activity occurs underground as it does on the street and even dozens of stories in the air, making that vigilance even more critical.

For my company’s workers and projects managers, many of whom are involved in retrofitting elevators and escalators to make subway stations across the city more accessible, underground construction activity presents a unique challenge.

The city that never sleeps also doesn’t stop while you dig. How do you keep your workers safe while also keeping those stations open to a public blissfully unaware of the dangers surrounding them?

Be aware

First and foremost, we don’t dig into anything before verifying that the area is clear of all potential hazards. Reasons for this are all too abundant. 

Unlike in suburban environments, where public utility poles appear above ground, utilities in densely populated Manhattan run underground. Workers are operating heavy machinery in cramped spaces, often working around sensitive electrical and heating infrastructure.

Alongside New York’s critical underground infrastructure is another set of pipes, valves and wires that are abandoned and unmarked by past generations. And as the ground shifts over time, that equipment may not be in the same places where they left it.

Our teams are constantly running into long-forgotten electrical and gas systems that must be safely relocated before digging further. The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous.

Twenty-five years ago, New Yorkers experienced the infamous Gramercy Park steam pipe explosion. One of Manhattan’s 109 miles of main steam lines was damaged on a construction site, spewing asbestos over a six-block radius. The accident killed three people in a residential building, injured 24 and displaced 200 more for months.

The long-term effects of this kind of disaster remain top of mind for construction safety teams in the city and diligence is key to avoiding a similar scenario in the future.

Digging underground also comes with a flooding risk as the water table underneath New York City is uneven and can appear unexpectedly. Accidentally drilling into the water table, something that has happened many times, causes a host of problems including flooding and subway closures.

Slow down

All of this means that workers must refrain from just charging ahead with the job at hand. Too often the prevailing mentality overvalues speed and efficiency — time is money and delays are costly, after all — but every construction team must do its due diligence before starting any job.

Despite the instinct to rush as tight timelines loom, workers must take the time to drill pilot holes during the exploratory phase and be sure to call 811 before a shovel hits the ground. The national digging hotline provides information about any hidden utilities that might be in your targeted area.

Communication is another vital part of the safety equation. If a worker finds an abandoned line or any other unanticipated obstacle — something that happens all the time — they should inform their supervisor immediately so that it can be deemed abandoned or active.

New York City public transit is making real progress on the accessibility front. Moving forward, let’s make sure that progress doesn’t come at the expense of safety.

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