April is National Safe Digging Month

Yes construction can and does take place all year long. But in the Midwest where frost can get down to about three to five feet, activity tends to drop off as winter sets in. We typically use this time indoors to plan for next year’s projects, and as the robins show up and warmer breezes blow in, we start setting up project schedules for the year. But as we kick things into gear, we want to remember the importance of calling for utility locates before we sink any shovels into the jobsite. To help promote this important step in the construction process, the Common Ground Alliance launched its annual support of National Safe Digging Month.

You can check out their website for resources and graphics that you may be able to use for your operations. And if you are a community, you may be able to use some of the graphics to promote calling before digging with your residents. It’s surprising how easy it can be to hit utilities sometimes doing things you wouldn’t even think would cause a problem. I was on a jobsite once where the contractor was securing the site at the end of the day. One of the workers was pounding in metal fence posts to hold up the orange construction fencing around the site. He pounded one right through a communication cable. Some of the crew ended up having to stay until the utility could repair the cable. The worst part of it was after he broke it, he noticed the line had been marked – he had pounded the pole right into the orange line. He most likely didn’t think pounding a metal fence post could break it like digging could. It was a good lesson to me that before you do anything in an area of a locate where you are putting something in the ground, you need to locate that utility first or move away from it if possible.

National Safe Digging Month logo showing someone planting a tree with a shovel.

The F-word, contractors, and women

Construction SiteWhat I've come to realize over the course of my career is that there are some male contractors who will accuse engineers/inspectors who are women of using the F-word in an effort to discredit them or get them into trouble. And I think the recent reaction to the use of this word by a U.S. diplomat (Top U.S. Diplomat Launches f-bomb on EU in leaked recorded conversation) is a good example of how effective this accusation can be.

Also what I've discovered is that contractors will use this tactic whether the word is actually said or not. The reason I know this is true is that I never say the F-word. Actually I did use it for a short time when I was probably 14 years old until I realized, at least for me, it did not add to the conversation, and I did say it once on the job in 1993 after spending a whole year being harrassed by a contractor in every manner possible including having them regularly exposing themselves to me and having the equipment operator regularly swing the arm of the exavator at me in an effort to intimidate me and get me to back down on my responsibility. So on the first day when they showed up for the next year, I told the main perpetrator in front of everyone I would not stand for the same treatment, and on that day I did use that word. Of course they complained to my supervisor. Fortunately he backed me up – probably because he was aware of how I had been treated, and I had no problems at all that year. But even though, except for that one time, I have never said it over the course of my career, I've had several contractors complain to my supervisors that I had. Fortunately almost all of my past supervisors knew me well enough to know it is a word I absolutely never say. They had seen me in every sort of situation and knew for a fact it was just not the manner in which I respond to things. So when a contractor tried to tell them I had said the F-word, they might as well have been saying, "I'm a big liar who is making up a story in an effort to get someone in trouble so you won't believe her anymore and I can tell you more lies to convince you to pay me for something she is telling you I did wrong and shouldn't be paid for." Unfortunately I did have one supervisor with little to no construction experience who seemed to fall hook, line, and sinker for this. And this is why contractors use this tactic – it sometimes works.

I guess I never really thought too much about why it works until I saw what happened with that diplomat. Now I'm thinking it works because our society appears to view the use of the word with a double standard – it is ok and expected to have men say it, but not women. At least I know this is the case on construction. Over 30 years of working on the jobsite, I heard it all, including the F-word, on a very regular basis. Some days I would hear it said so much, the word just faded into the background with all the others. And I never heard anyone on the construction site say, "excuse me, I find the use of that word offensive and would appreciate it if you never used it out here again." Absolutely no one ever appeared to be bothered by its use (including myself) nor did they ever even draw attention to it – they just seemed to take it for granted that people said it. So if men can regularly say the word and other men never are bothered by it, I am wondering why we have this double standard that penalizes a woman for saying it? And it appears the exposure of a woman saying it will cause such a negative reaction that contractors have figured out that even lying about a woman saying it with no proof at all is enough to cause major problems for that woman – at least if her supervisor is the type to fall for this kind of thing.

I think the key point to realize in all this is that the contractors who are complaining about a woman who says the F-word are not truly offended by the expression – after all their crews are using the word regularly on the jobsite. It's that these men are deliberately calling out a woman out for saying it (or making it up that she did) while they would not think to expose or accuse a man of saying it. Which makes me wonder about the diplomat's situation. I think if she had been a man and this had happened I think the public would have still thought of it in a negative manner. Whether the diplomat is a man or woman, it was not a diplomatic thing to say. But she is most likely not the only person – male or female -in that type of position who is using that word. So even with her it is the same issue – no one is thinking to expose a man who says it – it is only considered as a tactic when women are the target.


Unfortunately it has taken me years to figure all this out. Initially I had thought contractors were just assuming I said it because a lot of people do and adding that complaint to their overall objection to me requiring them to perform the work they were hired to do. But after the last time I had something like this happen, I finally realized contractors who do this were actually purposely lying as a strategy to get me in trouble or discredit me. Because my new job does not require me to be out on construction, I had thought perhaps I didn't need to worry about it anymore. After all, I had not ever read about or heard of any group outside of contractors doing this. But after seeing what happened with this diplomat, I am wondering if it is a pervasive tactic used by anyone in any field who might see an opportunity to benefit from it.


Fortunately there aren't a lot of contractors who resort to this tactic. But as long as this double standard is in place, I'm left wondering how we, as women, can best protect ourselves from being the target of this. As someone who does not say the word at all, my experience shows that just not saying it isn't the answer. 



Managing CCDD Material in Illinois

Well now that the dust has settled on the CCDD regulations, many of us are figuring out how we are going to manage the material in order to comply with the law. Basically, the process for many of us will be some modification of the following:

Determine if the excavation is near a Potentially Impacted Property or PIP

If near a PIP and not returning the material to the excavation,

  1. Place excavated material in a pile separated from other material
  2. Mark the pile in some manner to designate where it came from
  3. Arrange for testing of the material and if not contaminated receive form LPC-663 signed by a PE/PG
  4. If testing shows material is not contaminated, take material with form LPC-663 to a CCDD fill operation
  5. If testing shows material is contaminated, take the material to a landfill


If NOT near a PIP and not returning the material to the excavation,

  1. Place excavated material in a pile separated from other material
  2. Mark the pile in some manner to designate where it came from
  3. Arrange for pH testing of the material and if not contaminted, fill out form LPC-662
  4. If testing shows material is not contaminated (a pH between 6.5 and 9.0), take material with form LPC-662 to a CCDD fill operation
  5. If testing shows material is contaminated, take the material to a landfill

If CCDD material has been painted, it cannot be placed in a CCDD fill operation unless the owner is able to certify the paint meets certain requirements and indicates this using form LPC-667.

What each company and agency will have to work out will be if they are requiring crews to fill out a customized form for each excavation to document handling of that material, who will perform all the testing, and where material will be placed while it is being tested. For some, the cost of testing material excavated near a PIP will be more than the cost to just take it to a landfill. In those cases, the policy might be to take all soil excavated from a location near a PIP directly to a landfill.

In order to assist in the management of CCDD material, companies and agencies can set up websites to inform and track the material and testing status. I put together a Google Sites template that can be used for this purpose – you can view it here: CCDD Management Site. To use this to create your own site, click the "Use Template" button in the top right corner of that site. This will bring you to the Google Sites page (make sure you are signed into your Google account – if you don't have one, you can visit this site to find out how to get one: Social Media in Public Works 101 – Introduction/Email). Your template is already selected so all you need to do is type in a name for your site, make sure the URL is what you want, then type in the funny looking characters to let Google know you are not a robot. Google will then create your site.

After your site is created, you can begin editing and customizing it for your own purposes. The CCDD Status Table can be edited and all entries and column headings changed as needed. You can also add or delete anything to the pages depending on what you want your group to see when they visit your site. Also, make sure to go in and edit any viewing permissions. Right now the site is set up to be viewed by the public. You might want to change this so only those who you give the link to or those who you invite to the site can view or edit it. Another benefit of a site like this is that users can subscribe to the site so they are notified whenever changes are made. Below is a screenshot of the sample site:

CCDD Management Site


Should We Give People Free iPads?

New iPad - from http://www.flickr.com/people/johnkarakatsanis/Over the last few days I've been exposed to two ideas that interest me in how each demonstrates the need to properly vet an idea. (As an aside for for all of you familiar with MMORPGs: I figure if life was a game, "Vetting an Idea" would be considered a passive ability for those in the engineering profession.) First on Friday, I came across a quick example from the business world. One of my favorite companies, Linden Lab, offered a package deal on Amazon for their product Second Life. The deal was that you could buy a "Starter Package" for $0 (marked down from $9.95) and get a free vehicle for use in Second Life along with $1,000L which has a value of roughly $4 USD. While there is the root of a good idea here, I am not sure its implementation was properly thought through. The problem is that it was supposed to be ONE PER CUSTOMER. Yet people quickly discovered, for those who have multiple characters/avatars in Second Life, it was possible to buy this for each one. By the end of the day on which it launched, the offer was discontinued.

I won't go into the whole analysis of it here because there have been many blog posts already written about what happened. But I offer it to show that vetting an idea is important for both business as well as government. And the failure to do so can result in unintended consequences along with a backlash of criticism from the community. 

Should government give people free iPads?

The example I really wanted to delve into was an idea shared with me by another government professional who works for another community. He is kicking around the idea of giving a free iPad to one or two residents on each construction project to help improve communications during a construction project. Now at first, my engineer sense, which in many ways seems to work very much like Spiderman's spidey sense, says this is a bad idea with terrifying results. And not for the reason you are probably thinking. But in an effort to not be the "Negative Nancy" that many accuse engineers of being, I thought I'd ignore my first reaction and try to see how to make this work. And by doing so, begin putting it through the vetting process.

Lindberg Road Reconstruction in LaSalle, IL

Formulating the outcome

So the first step is to formulate the desired outcome or put down in writing why we are doing this. In this particular case, this person wants to increase communication during a construction project. He figures there are always one or two people on a project who always want to hang out and watch so why not give them the means to manage the communication for the project for their neighborhood. So he suggested giving them free iPads and asking them to use them to keep everyone up to date.

How did we do this before?

As some background, in the past and prior to social media project-related communication was normally done through several methods: sending out letters to the community and those most affected by the project and making personal contact throughout the project with those located within its limits or those affected by the project site. Now with the Internet, we can also add this information to websites and other social media sites. I experimented with using Twitter for this purpose back in 2008 and found it to be very successful. (See the Twitter stream from that project here: http://www.twitter.com/golfview2008).

Anticipating the unintended consequences

So let's anticipate any problems or consequences that could be caused by introducing the iPad idea. One of the first that comes to mind for me is based on a common occurrence engineers experience on the jobsite. They are often faced and confronted by a high degree of concern for fairness between properties. If one person gets their driveway touched and others do not, people are wondering why. Some demand they get the same treatment. Usually after we explain that only driveways impacted by the design and construction of the project are touched, most people understand and drop their demand for a new driveway. After all, we are not building the project for the purpose of giving everyone a new drive, but only to fix the road. However I have worked places where people become raving mad about not getting a new driveway, even if it isn't needed, just because their neighbor got one. So I would anticipate that giving a free iPad to one or two people on a project might bring out this sense of "my neighbor got something I did not." 

The other issues are more of  legal questions. First what if the iPad is given with the understanding that it will be used to communicate to others and the person does not do this. How would the city enforce their expectation and can they and is doing so a good idea? 

Another question is what if no one wants to do this? The residents who spent the most time on my projects did not seem like the type who would be interested in serving as the information people for the project so how do we find those who do? And what will be the process for making sure we have given everyone equal opportunity to volunteer?

The other legal question is that if the city gives someone a free iPad and tells them they expect it to be used to communicate information about the project and the person does this, but they also use it to display child pornography does the city have any liability in their actions? Perhaps there is no liability, but not being a lawyer, I am not sure.

Asphalt Paving on Anderson Blvd in Geneva IL

Thinking outside the box

So how could these two problems be avoided? Perhaps there could be a lottery for the iPad so that the opportunity to use it is by chance. But that might increase the risk that it would not properly be used for its intended purpose. Could an information kiosk be set up on each job with restrictions on what could be added to it? Could we have the person receiving the iPad sign something to protect the city should it be used for illegal purposes?

I am not sure of the answers to much of this and am still considering all aspects and trying to find solutions. I am also sure the person suggesting this plans to run it through their own vetting process. But in the meantime, I thought it'd be a good topic to throw out to the community for feedback because I am sure at some point someone in your own community might suggest a similar idea. I'm also interested in hearing what citizens would think about their government trying out this idea.



Sales Tax Exemptions for Public Projects

Normally when we bid a construction project, we don't address in the bid documents the payment of sales tax. We do, however, indicate that the contractor is required to follow all Federal, State, and Local laws. Because of this, I would assume that on most projects, a contractor would be paying any required sales tax on the materials purchased for that project. But in Illinois a local government is exempt from paying sales tax. So recently there has been some discussion in our area about allowing contractors on our projects the use of our tax exemption status to make purchases for that project without having to pay the sales tax. The idea would be that if a contractor has to pay sales tax, this cost would just be passed along to our municipality. And if we allow the use of our exemption, perhaps we could save this cost.

To accomplish this, we've been reviewing some language to put in our specifications. But a few of us have also been discussing the question of control of the use of the city's tax exempt number. If we just give out a copy of our certificate or our number, how do we know for sure how it is being used? What ramped up this concern is that a couple weeks ago, a contractor called me to request a copy of our certificate. I asked them why they needed it because I was not aware of any projects in which they were under contract with us. The person indicated it was for a project they were working on for our city. So I asked which project, and she said she would have to get back to me with that information. Of course, I never heard back from her. I started wondering, would contractors purposely try to obtain these numbers and then use them on non-exempt projects? Once a contractor has a copy of that certificate, how would a vendor know for sure if the purchase was really for a project contracted by that tax exempt entity or if perhaps the material was going elsewhere? 

I tried calling a vendor of construction materials to ask how they controlled this and how they made sure the material really was designated for a tax-exempt entity. They really did not seem to know. All they told me was they required the contractor to fill out a form with the number. So it appeared the vendor really had no control in place to ensure the number was properly used. This led me to wonder how it is done in other states. And what I found out was a great help although I did find out there is quite a variation on sales tax implementation throughout the U.S.

  • Some states do not charge sales tax at all
  • In some states, local government is not exempt from sales tax
  • And in most of the remaining states, the use of a tax exempt number for a construction project is regulated by a form that is provided to tax-exempt entities. This form allows local governments to designate their number, the contractor, the specific project for which the number will be used, and in many cases a start and end date.

I really liked the idea of a form we could issue with each project – this would avoid having to issue a copy of our certificate and would limit the use of the number to a specific time period. I called our state to make sure a form would be acceptable and was told yes, we could give out a form with our number instead of giving contractors a copy of our actual certificate.

Anyway, below is a very rough summary of my findings. You can find your state and see how it is handled there.

Disclaimer: Please note this is not a legal or official opinion or statement. You should not rely on the information I have provided, and you will need to investigate the accuracy of my research on your own. This also does not address any sales tax that must be charged by the contractor to the local government. 



Kinect, Robotics, Highway Safety, and Saving Lives



There's been a lot of talk about the use of Kinect and robotics. Yes, people have figured out how to use Microsoft's awesome gadget to manipulate robots. And Microsoft even has a Robotics website and development toolkits for this purpose. But so far, most of the demos I have seen focus on using robots to help with housework or serve as a companion. Not that this is bad, but I wonder if anyone has been looking at the use of this technology in public works. One of the first applications I'd look at is using it to assist flaggers in highway construction work zones.

Out of the almost 33,000 motor vehicle fatalities in 2010, 576 were in a work zone. While some education of the public and workers and improvements to the layout and set up of the work zone can help reduce this number, there's not much that can be done to help deaths of flaggers. Between 2003 and 2010 a range of 6 to 19 flaggers were killed in the U.S. each year. Unfortunately by the nature of their job, flaggers are stuck having to stand in close proximity to traffic. And there's only so much they can do to protect themselves from a driver who loses control of a vehicle for any reason. 

There's been some efforts to enhance visibility of the flagger or replace the human with a mechanical device. But from what I understand the mechanical device is not always a full solution. But while discussing this dilemna with another engineer, we started wondering if the Kinect/robotic solution could be implemented here. The robot could be designed to maximize visibility and it would remove the human from any danger and possibly even allow the human flagger to be placed in a better position. The human would no longer have to stand in the hot sun or freezing weather and could perhaps even be stationed somewhere that gave them a better view of the work zone and traffic. However, it would still be their judgement and training and movements behind the robot's operation.

Here's a video with a demonstration of someone using a robot to cut a banana. Sure it's a far cry from flagging in a work zone, but hopefully it conveys the possibilities. So all you programmers out there looking for an awesome use and product application for Kinect driven robotics, how about creating the robotic flagger and save some lives!? (And you can learn more about work zone safety here: The National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse)