When a Safety Precaution Becomes a Safety Issue

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If you’re going to relocate to Charleston, South Carolina be sure to remember one thing: live and work on the SAME side of a bridge. Avoid, if possible, crossing a bridge on a daily basis. If you are looking to visit the Holy City, be aware of potential traffic delays.

For those unfamiliar with the Charleston area, although it’s beautiful and rich with culture and history, the infrastructure isn’t the best in terms of traffic. The city is surrounded with rivers, resulting in multiple bridges serving as the main roadways to access various areas. The map below provides a visual of the bridges throughout the greater Charleston area. The bridges are highlighted in yellow.

Map source: https://bridgehunter.com/sc/charleston/big-map/

If it rains, forget about arriving anywhere on time. If there’s an accident on one of the bridges, expect to be in standstill traffic. If you’re attempting to drive anywhere during rush hour – I hope you have great music or a podcast because you will be sitting in your car for a long period of time. These examples are daily occurrences when you have 66,351 employed civilians driving to and from work and crossing one or more bridges.

Imagine adding in an accident involving an SUV and fuel tanker on the famous Ravenel Bridge, closing it down for more than eight hours. It happened on May 25, 2015. According to the city’s paper, The Post and Courier, 77,000 drivers utilize the bridge daily. The weather also plays an important part of bridge-traffic management, even in the South.

“In late January 2014, chunks of melting ice dropped from the Ravenel Bridge cables and towers in the wake of an unusually fierce winter storm that hit a few days earlier. At least nine people called 911 to report damaged vehicles after the bridge reopened to traffic, and the bridge closed for an additional six hours.”

Most recently, on Wednesday, July 19, Charleston commuters experienced yet another traffic calamity during the afternoon rush hour. A powerful storm swept over the city; prompting a severe thunderstorm advisory from the National Weather Service. Afternoon storms are not uncommon for Charleston, but what was different about this storm was the crisis that occurred on the Don Holt bridge (circled in red on the above map).  The 6-lane steel bridge was covered with a protective netting to catch debris from construction. At the peak of rush hour, the netting fell onto passing vehicles. A safety precaution turned into hazard during one of the busiest travel times of the day.

According to the Post and Courier, “…traffic came to a standstill around 5:10 p.m. from both directions of the bridge after netting, tarps and cables fell onto the span, according to statements by the North Charleston and Charleston police departments.

About 10 to 12 vehicles were trapped under a fallen tarp, said Spencer Pryor, a North Charleston police spokesman. All occupants were rescued.”

Although no injuries were reported, the fallen tarp prompted lane closures, in addition to stranded commuters and damaged vehicles.

Every Crisis is a Human Crisis

The tarp/netting was ultimately brought down by a storm, however, concerned drivers were reporting the tarp’s instability days prior to the accident. One motorist called 911 and stated:

“The Don Holt bridge, where they’ve covered it up for painting it, the top cover is flapping,” the caller said. “It’s a huge canvas. I think it could come completely loose and hit cars and cause havoc and lives lost.”

Ignoring a potential problem will not resolve the issue. Upon the first call, the netting should have been checked for loose ends; potentially avoiding the crisis that would ensue days later. Additionally, the netting should have been monitored closely, especially with a high-powered storm passing through the city.

July 2017 storm in Charleston, South Carolina

Fortunately, the scene was cleared by 7:10 a.m. ET the next day without injuries. By that time, however, citizens were commuting back to work. Traffic across the low country was backed up for the commute due to travelers taking alternate routes.

Prepare for the Known and the Unknown

Every employer must understand that situations can and will occur, preventing employees from arriving to work. Preparing for a tarp to fall on one of your local roadways may not be a part of your plan; however, employees being stranded and unable to make it to work should be in your crisis plan.

If tasks and projects can be completed remotely, ensure employees have the accessibility to work from a different location. Things to consider if employees can work remotely:

  • Should employees be administered company-owned laptops?
  • Do employees need to work under a secure internet connection? If so, ensure employees know work cannot be conducted via open wifi channels, like in a coffee shop or a library.

If work cannot be conducted remotely, implementing a two-hour delay may be of benefit. The travel time two hours later can be significantly improved.

Don’t fall victim to ‘it won’t happen here.’ Employers across Charleston may not have anticipated a tarp falling on a bridge and closing a major highway for more than 12 hours. What they could have, and should have planned for, was a situation resulting in employees not arriving to work on time, or arriving at all.

We are not recommending planning for exact details – because details cannot be predicted. What you can predict are overarching problems, like employees being stranded during their commute. Sit down with management and explore protocols to take if half of your workforce is absent for a day or longer.

Plan, document and practice for situations that will strike your organization. It is better to be proactive in the planning process than reactive in the management process.

And if you are inclined to visit Charleston, please be sure to take a drive to Rainbow row and Waterfront Park; but also be aware of traffic during storms and rush hour.

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