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August 1, 2019

How safety by design makes school projects safer from start to finish, and beyond

  • The concept promotes the health of students and school staff at every phase of the design process.
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    Facility safety has been pushed to the forefront as educational organizations grapple with the challenges of aging infrastructure.

    As schools and universities face opportunities for new construction, designers are turning to environmental health consultants for guidance on how to integrate safety into the full building life cycle — from pre-planning, through occupancy and eventual demolition or reuse.

    This safety-by-design approach promotes the health of students and school staff at every phase of the design process, including leading up to, throughout and after occupancy.

    Safety steps

    Safety begins from the ground up. During the initial phases of design, planners must assess the facility’s placement to evaluate viability, integrity and longevity.

    During this pre-design phase, the site undergoes studies that will eventually provide a road map for the project. Land surveys are used to determine the ideal placement of a site by assessing its proximity to other properties or environmental elements. Traffic studies are conducted to ensure safe travel and ADA compliance. Wetlands studies consider the safety of the local ecology during and after construction.

    Lastly, environmental site assessments look toward the history of a site to determine whether underlying contamination issues are present. This step is critical to prevent any long-term health and environmental issues that may arise during facility occupancy.

    The project then moves to the design phase, where safety will again play a key role. During this phase, the results of prior studies, regulations, budgets and specifications, are combined into a series of guidance documents that will steer the facility’s construction.

    Engineers and designers use these documents as a resource as they develop the infrastructural components of the site’s safety.

    Images courtesy of PBS Engineering and Environmental [enlarge]
    During the initial phases of school design, planners evaluate viability, integrity and longevity to determine safety measures.

    Environmental engineers create solutions to protect and improve the health of living organisms.

    Geotechnical engineers address the behavior of earth materials. Structural engineers design the “bones and muscles” that create the shape of a facility’s foundation.

    Traffic engineers focus on the safe and efficient movement to the school on adjacent roadways.

    Civil engineers and architects look at how to safely maneuver people and vehicles throughout the interior of a school’s site, especially during pick up and drop off.

    Once site development is actively underway, the guidance documents are also used to safeguard the safety of site workers and minimize environmental impacts. At this stage, workers are trained on health regulations, and safety protocols are put in place for field activities.

    Routine testing is conducted, particularly on sites with unusual chemicals requiring remediation. Occasionally, changes in site conditions such as severe weather will require adjustments in health and safety protections. Having a proactive safety plan in place allows staff to dynamically maintain focused on safety, while incorporating changes into ongoing protection protocols.

    Open communication between contractors, owners and stakeholders is vital at this phase. Potential site risks, if identified early, can be addressed in a way that upholds regulatory compliance, while preventing situations that would otherwise bring work to a halt.

    Finally, once construction is completed, facility managers step in to help secure continued safety for students and staff. This role comes with its own unique challenges.

    Once site development is underway, the guidance documents are also used to safeguard the safety of site workers and minimize environmental impacts.

    A more holistic approach

    The field of facility management is constantly evolving. Regulations and codes are frequently updated in response to technological advancements or new discoveries in environmental health.

    Over the last 20 years, changes to regulations associated with lead paint, asbestos, drinking water, seismic upgrades and dilapidated underground tanks have transformed the face of facility safety.

    Schools and universities often rely on facility management programs to incorporate new requirements and address issues as they arise.

    Routine testing of air, water and building materials helps to identify issues proactively. If renovations are required, safety practices help ensure that impacts to building materials are handled appropriately, protecting air and environmental quality. Educational organizations are moving beyond the reactive to a more holistic approach to school safety.

    Consultants, workers, and communities are beginning to work collaboratively to incorporate safety into the full building life cycle. When schools are designed on a foundation of safety, educators are freed to focus on instruction and students can thrive in an environment that fosters healthy minds.
    Heather Goudie is senior marketing coordinator at PBS Engineering and Environmental.

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