Engineering Rome

Foundations of San Clemente

Comparing Safety Culture in Construction in Italy with the US

1. Introduction

Construction is paramount to the development of cities. Rome, one of the oldest cities still thriving today, has undergone centuries of construction over its lifetime. With construction come safety practices and procedures, also known as “safety climate”. The purpose of this article is to briefly examine differences between the US and Italy, including required personal protective equipment (PPE), local and federal regulations, and personal and company attitude towards safety. This article will combine my first-hand observations of construction practices as well as generalizations that are supported by my experience and documents that I will reference and summarize.

Figure : I was so excited to walk through and see a construction site!
Photo courtesy of author

2. Background

While in Rome, I was thrilled to see the all of the construction happening through the city. You see, I just get excited watching excavators, cranes, and people in personal protective equipment (PPE) dig, build, and accomplish challenging tasks. On my bus from the airport to the UW Rome Center, I saw 4 cranes on one giant site – it was so cool! While walking by a construction area that was replacing the cobblestones, I noticed that the workers were wearing shorts, didn’t have safety glasses on, and only a handful had hard hats. It didn’t feel right. My rule-following nature wanted to tell them to have their PPE on – but because I don’t speak Italian well enough to communicate my concern, I walked on. It’s a good thing I did, too. Italy has different laws and cultural norms that articulate the recommended ways to be safe, or safe enough.

Figure : Captured on August 29th 2017, workers replace cobblestones in Rome.
Most workers are missing long pants, gloves, hard hats, and safety glasses.
Photo courtesy of author.
Figure : Overlooking Pacifici quarry on September 12, 2017
Photo courtesy of author
Figure : Line C construction zone
Photo courtesy of author

2.a. Defining Safety Culture

Underground Construction, an organization that rates other companies and has awarded prizes for strong safety cultures, recently interviewed two professionals on their thoughts towards safety culture, how it has been implemented in their work place, and ideas to improve safety culture in general. These representatives from two underground construction companies are Matt Ory Director, Safety and Health, ElectriCom Inc and Butch Magers, Safety Director, Kenneth G. Myers Construction

2.a.i. The First Step

With many Italian companies having a safety culture that does not actually improve one’s safety, first steps must be taken. Here, Ory and Magers make their recommendations of how to begin.

“What is the first step in creating such a [safety] culture?”

  • OryThe senior management team must take the first step. A commitment to the cause must be demonstrated. The president of our organization has developed a Safety & Health Mission Statement. This statement demonstrates his commitment and his role in the safety and health process within our organization. It states that: “It is my responsibility as president to promote and ensure the safety of our workplace…”

Ory’s statement of the importance of senior management leading the shift aligns with what I have observed on a couple sites. At my summer internship, the safety culture seemed almost artificial, or it didn’t have a strong foundation. This could be because the leadership on site (superintendent, assistant sups, PM, and PE) had a reluctant attitude toward our internal safety inspections, and when requests or observations were made by myself and other laborers, we weren’t taken seriously. I only have observations from my site, one of many at this time, but it still reflects the atmosphere that is set by the leadership team of the company.

  • Magers – New employees begin their career with safety orientation; an introduction of industry hazards; and discussion and training in identifying work hazards, eliminating hazards, and safe procedures and practices in dealing with hazards. During this orientation, the seed for the Safety First culture is planted and fertilized with the knowledge that although each employee is primarily responsible for his own safety, the entire company stands beside him or her in safe work practices. From the beginning, every employee is encouraged to speak up and never look the other way when dealing with safety.

My first two days with my current internship were all about safety. I got the typical new hire orientation, had a site visit, and sat in on a subcontractor pre-con safety meeting with a few other PE’s and the safety supervisor. Because I got a site-specific introduction, I took the orientation more seriously than if I had just watched a generic video, which is what my summer internship did. Asking questions directly to our supervisor encouraged me to have the same feeling that Magers referred to with being able to speak up and make a difference.

2.a.ii. Forming Safety Culture

This question is especially pertinent to Italy because % of their construction companies are under _ people, according to__ .

“Can a small- or medium-sized organization create and implement a safety program, or do outside experts need to be involved?”

  • Ory– Any organization can create and implement a safety program. However, I strongly believe that a true safety professional is needed to create, implement and facilitate an effective safety process.

Ory’s comments ring true, though I think when looking at Italy, small organizations would be well advised to get outside, professional assistance when creating their own program. The overall climate is not as focused on creating a formal safety climate, so choosing to go for a self-created safety program may lead to having gaps or other missing pieces.

  • Magers – Yes, with today’s deep well of information available through the internet in text, pictures and video, it is very possible. There are tons of useful websites to choose from. We recently completely revised and overhauled our safety manual which originated in 1994. We did this completely in house and are proud of the finished product. That said, we are always open to any outside influence or expert who can help us perform our work safely.

In the US, I’m sure that Magers’ suggestions are valid, though I would proceed with caution before whole-heartedly recommending his conclusion for Italian construction companies. Though there may be many sources available in English, I don’t believe there is as vast a supply in Italian. Because of the lack of resources, I think going for a more formal option by asking a professional to intervene would lead to a more permanent change that actually makes progress towards a more receptive safety culture. After this is established in many companies, it will be easier for future groups to model their practices off what has worked in the past without needing an external intervention.

2.b. The Framework Directive

2.b.i. European Directive 89-391

Formally known as Council Directive 89/391/EEC – Introduction of Measures to Encourage Improvements in the Safety and Health of Workers at Work, the Framework Directive was created in 1989 by EU-OSHA. The purpose of this Directive was to “introduce measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work.” It was a step in the right direction to nudge employers to increase their employee’s well-being, however, the construction industry needed something stronger than this.

2.b.ii. European Directive 92-57

Three years later, European Directive 92/57 was introduced. It is directed at construction sites in Europe to achieve satisfactory safety performances (Ravetta/Turrini).

Comparisons Between Italy and the US

With different cultural norms, languages, and laws in place to protect the safety of construction sites, we will now look at the similarities and differences between Italy and the US’s actual safety consequences, PPE requirements, .

Actual safety incidents

The Italy and the US have similar incident rates in the general work place (3.7 and 3.9 per 100 in 2008 respectively).

Standards of US and Italy

Employers are required to enforce usage of PPE

When hazards are present (physical contact, absorption, inhalation) that could cause any injury or impairment to the function of any part of the body

  • Hazardous process
  • Environmental
  • Chemical
  • Radiological h
  • Mechanical irritants

What is acceptable PPE?

  • Equipment for eyes, face, head, hearing, and extremities
  • Protective clothing
  • Respiratory devices
  • Protective shields and barriers

PPE must be maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition.

3. Site Visits

Site visits were a crucial part of my study abroad experience. They opened my eyes to new challenges, were astounding to see the scale of, and inspiring to be reminded how engineering can impact the world.

3.a. MOSE

MOSE Project – Venezia, Italia
On Wednesday, September 6, 2017, the Engineering Rome cohort got a tour of the MOSE project in Venezia. We were required to wear long pants and closed toe shoes, and provided with a hard hat and safety vest. The provided hard hat and vest were obviously of lower quality because Velcro was used instead of zippers or snaps, and the Velcro was only used minimally. Some of the hard hats’ suspension assemblies were broken, which meant that many of my classmates didn’t have securely fitting hard hats. Also, the suspension was pinned together, not ratcheted, so it couldn’t get as tight around the wearer’s head. We were not given safety glasses or gloves.

All this PPE seemed excessive for our tour – we didn’t even enter the construction fencing, and only one piece of heavy machinery drove by during our 30 minute site visit. Still, it was a nice gesture and showed that the hosts wanted to give the vibe that safety is an important aspect for their visitors. However, with the choice of PPE they gave us, I think they didn’t quite get the nail on the head by not providing safety glasses. After my head (and brain), my eyes are my top priority to protect, and wearing safety glasses would have brought me greater ease when walking the site. However, when I realized that we were not truly entering an active construction zone, my concern decreased significantly.

Figure: UW Engineering Rome students touring MOSE ProjectYou can see Kreed (foreground, center) had one of the broken hard hats as the strap is loose

The laidback attitude of which PPE to provide and the quality of it for guests may be reflective of the overall project’s attitude for each of their workers and managers on site. If so, I am concerned for the safety of those who are out on site installing the pontoons. Upon further investigation, I was unable to find any publications describing safety issues during the actual construction and installation of the pontoons. There are at least two reasons that no articles came up, the more favorable would be that there were truly no major incidents. Another option, and challenge of being inexperienced doing international research, is that no articles came up because they are all in Italian, and my search engine didn’t know to pull them forward to me.

3.b. Travertine Quarry

Tuesday, September 12, 2017 –
Visiting the travertine quarry was one of my favorite parts of the Rome trip because I got to see a real application of the construction problems I had learned how to analyze last year. The big machinery must haul large hunks of travertine up from the quarry base to surface level where it could be treated and eventually sent off to the quarry’s customers. The homework was to determine what gear the truck must be in with the given load, grade, and distance to travel, as well as calculate the cycle-time and efficiency of the system. Though I didn’t do this here, it would have been a fun challenge to analyze.

The safety mentality at the quarry was severely lacking. Upon arrival, we were not given a safety briefing or fundamentals of things to look out for other than the insubstantial guard rails. When we were walking around the upper ledge, we were told by our guide to stay back from and not rely up on the mid- and guard-rails because “they are more just for show”.

Figure: Olivia looks over the ledge at the quarry levels below. Here you can see the skimpy railing system
and its gaps. When I pushed with one hand on the top rail, it deflected several inches both directions.
Photo courtesy of Engineering Rome 2017 Sharypic
Figure: The slab is cleaned with high pressure water jets. The operator
is wearing a hard hat but no safety vest or glasses.
Photo courtesy of Pacifici Travertino

We were required to wear long pants and boots, but PPE such as reflective vests, hard hats, glasses and gloves were not required or provided for us. I also noticed some of the workers did not wear hard hats or safety glasses, even when they were operating overhead swinging cranes or saws to transport or shape the stone. The enormous rotating band saws that take several hours to cut through the travertine blocks had exposed sections of saw blade (a few feet on either end of the block) that would severely harm someone if they (stupidly) walked up to the blade. Ways to prevent a potential disaster would be to encase the blade or create a caging system around the saw and block, or to physically stop people from getting too close by implementing a fence or barricade around each saw.

3.c. Line C – TBM

On the last Wednesday of the class, we got a tour of the C line tunnel boring machine construction site. While there, we were required to wear long pants and work boots, and they provided us with reflective vests and hard hats. These hard hats actually had an adjustable ratchet system, so they were more securely mounted to our heads. I brought my own safety glasses, and noticed a handful of the laborers I saw wore them also. This is an improvement from other sites we saw and the general culture of not adding value to protect one’s eyes.

Figure: One of the cranes at ground level that served to assist in the construction of the excavation to begin the
Metro C-line tunnel.

Figure : Engineering Rome students looking at the TBM
Photo courtesy of Engineering Rome 2017 Sharypic

Figure : Here are several workers at the site. Consistently, they wore hard hats and brightly colored vests,
but did not wear safety glasses or gloves.
Photo courtesy of Engineering Rome 2017 Sharypic

X. Bonus – Construction Modeling

The Baths of Caracalla were one of my favorite site visits. I was overwhelmed by their immense size, my jaw dropped! Something that increased my appreciation of the visit was the lecture we had by UW Professor Steve Muench. From the classroom, I learned different construction techniques, including how the scaffolding was more secure because it was mounted into the actual walls. This is why there are holes evenly spaced along the walls of the structure. Now, we use tie-offs for the scaffolding every feet. Seeing how the Romans understood that the temporary scaffolding would be more stable by doing the tie-oiff and thus saving the lives of many workers from falling with a collapsed structure was inspiring. People through the ages have worked hard to secure the lives of their employees when (as morbid as this sounds) it is not a good idea, financially or otherwise, to let them die on site.

For Thanksgiving this year, the granddaughters (myself, sister, and two younger cousins) were given free reign to design whatever we wanted, instead of the precooked and designed standard house from the past decade. At first I was unsure what I wanted to create, but knew my Roma experience needed to be present. After deciding that the circular sections of the colosseum would be too challenging, the Baths of Caracalla came to mind! I started with engineering paper coming up with arch and wall templates, then got to work rolling out the dough, cutting it into uniform shapes (though my quality control wasn’t so great) and baking it until it had enough strength to handle its self-weight. Finally the pieces came out of the oven, and I let them cool – hot materials would have made the “mortar” or frosting melt and lose its strength.


Below is the time lapse of my assembly of my interpretation of the exterior walls of the the Baths of Caracalla.