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A President's Message from SEAOC President Rafael Sabelli

Monday, April 27, 2020  

By Rafael Sabelli, SE, SEAOC President 2020

SEAOC has taken the position that, for essential construction that is mandated to continue during the pandemic, structural engineering services (including site observation, when appropriate) are necessary for long-term public safety. As the current wave of the pandemic abates in California, it is likely that the local restrictions on construction will be lifted (perhaps by degrees). As more construction occurs, more site observation by the structural engineer will be required. The threat of infection, it is understood, will be with us for some time, adding to our usual safety concerns regarding site visits.

SEAOC has received accounts of situations related to site visits via crisisfeedback@seaoc.org, which was created to provide a channel to share experiences and obstacles to our profession related to the pandemic and thus to inform SEAOC’s work in supporting our members. The situations include ones in which the contractor is slow or loath to adopt on-site health protocols consistent with CDC and California Department of Public Health guidance. These accounts make clear that structural engineers with projects under construction need to give thought to the additional risks they face in this time and take steps to ensure safe working conditions for themselves and their staff.

I have requested that the Professional Practices committee provide guidance on performing such visits in this time of the pandemic. That committee is producing a document (currently in draft form; soon to be issued) that provides helpful guidance in the form of identification of state and local orders which must be followed, and clarity in distinguishing measures that provide for public health by reducing rates of transmission, and measures that provide for individual risk reduction. The committee is also planning a series of articles addressing a number of issues such as business continuity, legal issues, working from home, and other issues related to work during the pandemic.

In my role as president of SEAOC, I want to add to this discourse, offering, as I have in the past, some general thoughts for consideration, but also some more specific ideas as each of us (for ourselves, and for our firms) considers the appropriate protocols to follow based on our projects, our staff, our clients, our contracts, and each individual’s assessment of, and tolerance for, risks that are not established with a high level of confidence. It is my hope to arm the structural engineer with ideas concerning establishing safe working conditions, and to provide support for taking such a stand.

In typical circumstances we rely on contractors to maintain a safe site, and thus to safe working conditions for ourselves and our employees for the portion of our work performed on site. We nevertheless have the ethical obligation to use our own assessment of these conditions if we feel we are being placed at undue risk. Under the current circumstances there is potentially a significantly increased risk to all parties on site, and there is a corresponding ethical responsibility to consider that risk by all parties with the ability and authority to address it: the state, the local jurisdiction, the contractor, the architect, and the structural engineer. While the overall COVID caseload may decline, it is prudent to assume that there is a disproportionate level of infection amongst those not sheltering in place (such as people on a construction site) and to take precautions accordingly.

The potential measures are offered as elements that can be considered for incorporation into a policy for reducing the risk to the engineer performing a site observation. These are a point-in-time list of measures proposed for discussion and consideration; as new guidance becomes available from the CDC and other authorities; such guidance should inform adaptation of these considerations. Similarly, as project practices and protocols are established and evolve, such conditions may supersede some of the measures listed. Firms with human resources and legal departments should consult with these in establishing their practices.


With that discussion as context, I offer my list of considerations below. The site-visit conditions may be established based on some or all of these considerations (and possibly others), in an agreement that includes the contractor. As always, agreements are less likely to be misunderstood if they are documented and circulated. Agreement and documentation help protect against being surprised by conditions in the field and having to make the difficult choice between going forward under less suitable conditions than expected or aborting the visit.

Please stay safe!

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Site-visit considerations

1.     Confirm that the visit is necessary.

Is it required by contract or standard of care?

Is it allowed by the applicable public-health orders?

Can it be delayed until the stay-at-home order is lifted?

Could it be replaced by a virtual visit?

2.     Review current CDC and California Department of Public Health guidance.

3.     Review the contractor’s health protocols.

Are they practicing social distancing?

Are there individuals on site exhibiting symptoms of illness?

Are there sufficient hygiene facilities on site?  Are they being used correctly and frequently?

How many people are required to visit the site?

4.     Plan the visit in detail with the contractor.

Can the visit take place during non-construction hours?

Which elements are to be reviewed?

Does the visit require passing through indoor or confined spaces? Construction lifts? Elevators?

Who will be present? Will potentially more people be present? Engineers are encouraged to be clear about not participating in planned or spontaneous on-site meetings.

What personal-protective equipment is required?  (This refers to PPE such as hard hats. The California Department of Public Health does not recommend use of N-95 or surgical masks, which are needed for health care workers.) PPE should not be shared; the engineer should have their own.

Will those present on site will comply with CDC guidance for use of cloth masks indoors and maintaining interpersonal distance of 6 feet or more?

5.     Get in, get on with it, get it over with, and get out!