Every October is Safe Work Month in Australia – a month that asks all organizations to commit to building safe and healthy workplaces.

In recognition of this, we’ve put together this list of the most common safety risks to help ensure your people are safe when they’re out conducting site investigations, stability assessments, drilling and environmental monitoring tests – no matter what country they work in!

Considerations for every geotechnical site investigation

While some people might regard health and safety as unnecessary, or a box-ticking exercise, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Health and safety measures such as detailed risk assessments are put in place and carried out with very good reason. 

Completing a geotechnical site investigation is no small feat. It requires extensive planning, and there are several important considerations to make before you even get on site. It isn’t simply a case of getting there, drilling a hole and leaving. Whether it be environmental or financial, time constraints or restricted access, there’s a lot of groundwork to be done before you get onto the site itself. 

Before getting to site

Before any personnel, plant or equipment are mobilized, a geotechnical/environmental company needs to do its due diligence. This means carrying out research into the proposed site, completing underground service surveys, applying for relevant permits, assessing the onsite access conditions to selecting the appropriate drilling plant, reviewing all plant maintenance records, and developing a unique risk assessment that accounts for all specific site challenges. 

These preliminary stages help companies build a profile for the site, ensuring they’re as well-prepared and safe for when drilling commences.

Common geotechnical hazards

Globally, the construction industry is in the top three industries where there is risk of occupational accidents. Construction workers are three times more likely to be killed and twice as likely to be injured as workers in other occupations. Since geotechnical site works are comprehensive, the potential risk of accidents is diverse from project to project. Below are some of the most common hazards geotechnical workers are exposed to:

  1. Risk #1 – Trench collapse and cave ins

    trenchcollapseWorkers are exposed to many hazards during excavation, pile driving and compaction work, but the major hazard is the danger of cave-ins. Factors such as type of soil, water content of soil, environmental conditions, proximity to previously backfilled excavations, the weight of heavy equipment or tools, and vibrations from machines and motor vehicles can greatly affect soil stability and the hazards that workers face.

    Soils with low unconfined compressive strengths, unstable granular soils, especially unsaturated sands close to dry conditions, and silt soils may cause stability problems if necessary precautions are not taken.

    In one study, tasks involving trenching and installing pipe were identified as the main cause of accidents in the geotechnical industry, constituting 81.8% of the total accident rate. Sadly, more than 30 construction workers are killed each year in the USA alone in trenching or excavation-related incidents, and many more suffered from injuries and near-misses. This shows just how important it is for site planners to have proper protective measures in place for any works happening in and around trenches. It also highlights the need geotechnical sign off on any trench design, as well as geotechnical supervision when approved trenching conditions vary. 

  1. Risk #2 – Falls from height

    Another significant hazard geotechnical professionals may be exposed to include exposure to falls from height, such as falling into excavations. Deep excavations pose a significant threat to individuals walking around the site who may fall into these spaces if not properly cordoned off. While not nearly as prevalent in the industry as say trench collapse (14% of the total accident rate), injuries caused because of these types of accidents can be life threatening.

  2. Risk #3 – Working in confined spaces

    confined spaceIn today’s world, the urbanized nature of developed nations means that geotechnical site investigations are no longer constrained to the muddy fields of the countryside. Increasingly, property developers are looking to have investigative work undertaken in towns and cities. Drilling in these urban environments presents its own challenges, however. The major one being the issue of restricted space.

    When operating in tighter confines, you don’t have the option of using conventional drilling rigs; the sort of rigs that you would normally use in a large, expansive space. Extra considerations need to be taken when using these restricted access drilling rigs. These considerations include avoiding pipelines and wirings, reducing the impact on the surrounding area where possible (in terms of noise pollution, for example).

    Working in confined spaces can also result in limited oxygen supplies, as well as exposure to hazardous gases like carbon monoxide or radon. Having the right controls in place to limit/eliminate the need for work in confined spaces is key to ensure the protection of all individuals on site.

What else can lead to injuries?

Unfortunately, the very nature of bidding for jobs and a lack of resources means workers can become prone to injuries – through no fault of their own – but rather the fault of upper management. 

Site investigations should never be rushed. A hurried job will inevitably lead to a poorer job. This is reflected in one study, which observed that projects costing less than US$500,000 were more likely to end up with occupational fatal accidents.

Another study also found that 72% of fatalities occurred in projects costing under US$1 million. This point emphasized that small-mid range companies either cannot or are more unwilling to put in place the proper training and safety supports to ensure the safety of their people. Money is no excuse to reduce money spent on safety, so make sure your company considers the cost to implement proper safety precautions in any contract they bid for! 

What do you think? Are there any other hazards we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “The most common safety risks for Geotechs!

  1. Retired ex- geotech here. Safety Issues that plagued us during my career included: driving to and from the site as well as around the site; working around heavy and mobile equipment; silica dust exposure; loud noises leading to hearing loss; dangerous wild animals (in remote locations); walking on rough uneven terrain leading to slips, trips and falls; and (speaking as an old guy who ignored this) ergonomics- e.g. working in awkward situations (laptop on a dashboard, stump, crate etc.) combined with getting older leading to bad backs, knees and hips.

    1. Thanks for letting us know Mike! Definitely agree that all of those things need to be considered – there’s been a big push in the last couple months on ways to reduce silica exposure, so that (plus some of those other hazards you mentioned) could make for some important areas for us to explore in subsequent safety related articles. Really appreciate your input!

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