Access, Access, Access: Reach Out and Hug a Bridge

MONDAY, MAY 15, 2017

By Robert Ikenberry

We’ve all heard the real-estate cliché: “The three most important things about selling a house are location, location, location.” That’s because when most of us start thinking about buying a home we start with the neighborhood. Where do we want to live? What’s the commute to work? What kind of schools will my kids be able to attend? How much can I afford to spend? What’s the access to shopping and transit? And so forth.

Realtors focus on location because most of the other features of a home can be adjusted. You can remodel a kitchen, you can upgrade insulation or improve windows, you can change the horrible yellow color and you can plant bushes to obscure the rusting cars in the neighbor’s backyard. But you can’t generally pick the house up and move it!

Bridge-painting jobs should have a similar mantra: Access, access, access.

Access platform
Washington State DOT, CC BY-NC-ND, via Flickr
If you don’t have good access to the structure, an efficient project is impossible.

You can make a lot of adjustments to your crews, equipment and work methods, but if you don’t have good access to the structure, an efficient project is impossible. Therefore, you can’t just subcontract out the access and forget it. Different trades have different access needs. What works for ironworkers or electricians won’t work for painters. You need an access system designed specifically with your work scope in mind and overseen by someone experienced in the means and methods of bridge cleaning and painting.

Proximity

First, you need to get really close to the steel for effective painting. Three feet away might as well be a mile. “Spitting distance” isn’t painting distance. Abrasive blasting might be a little more “hands-off,” but to really inspect, stripe, prime and finish-paint a steel structure like a bridge, you not only need to reach out and touch it, you really need to be able to “hug” the members.

Complex shapes and interiors of laced members are common on bridges. You need to get at them from both sides. And they have lots of edges, nooks and crannies that need direct attention and visibility from every angle. Plus, you need that access at every level. You must be able to reach around to coat edges, bolts and rivets, to reach through to coat interior surfaces, and to reach in and around to coat the interior edges, rivets and bolts. Touching the outside surfaces of a complex member is just not close enough.

‘Reachability’ Overlap

Scaffold systems have generally been designed with a 6-foot, 6-inch level spacing, and that’s just about right for painting access. Certainly, 8-foot levels are too tall. In many instances, you really need to be able to get your head above the highest ledge or beam flange, so you can see over and down onto the inside edge. With a 6-foot, 6-inch spacing you can generally reach down from above for that top foot or so and see over the edge of a ledge up to about the 5-foot, 6-inch level, so that works pretty well. Plus, you can probably reach up to the bottom few inches of the members on the next level, where workers on the upper level can’t really see to reach around and under. There always needs to be a “reachability” overlap between the scaffold levels for true coverage.

Building an access platform
Washington State DOT, CC BY-NC-ND, via Flickr
To really inspect, stripe, prime and finish-paint a steel structure like a bridge, you not only need to reach out and touch it, you really need to be able to “hug” the members.

When I say you need to be able to “hug” the steel, this goes for vertical columns and posts as well. You need to be able to reach them comfortably from both sides with good overlap, so that all the nuts, bolts, rivets, welds and edges can get attention from all directions.

Below-Deck Concerns

Remember this height limitation when you’re designing platforms under the decks of bridges as well. If you can walk under the stringers of the bridge without ducking, your platform is too low. Stringers are typically 18 to 24 inches, and you need to be able to reach up to the top flanges and coat around the bolt or rivet clusters at their attachments. That means being able to reach up so that the back of your wrist—not just your fingertips—can touch the the underside of the deck of the bridge. The time you lose crouching down to stoop (or even crawl) under 4-foot floor beams that are only 2 feet, 6 inches above the deck is worth it when you have to work on the top flanges of the floor beams and stringers.

Remember, for really good access to the steel on a bridge, you don’t just need to be able to reach out and touch it: You need to be able to really wrap your arms around it.

Looking East to Make America Great

I’m on an extended trip in Southeast Asia, still trying to keep up on the news from home in the United States.

Our Congress, as usual, seems to be bogged down in partisan and intra-party bickering, even though one party is theoretically in control of all three bodies in the legislative process—Senate, House and the executive branch.

This has been the established state of paralysis for most of at least the past three or four presidential cycles. It is unfortunately creating lasting problems.

Shanghai
Images courtesy of the author
China is taking its deserved reputation for terrible air quality and turning it into a reason to become a world leader in green technology.

As anyone who works in construction knows, projects are built on cooperation, even though owner and contractor have very different priorities and interests. Both parties need to have a realistic vision of what a successful project will be. Attempting to dictate that the project only conform to one side’s sole interpretation of the letter of the contract terms and specifications, regardless of which side wants to be rigid, is a recipe for delays, cost overruns, claims and ultimately the failure to meet the objectives of either party.

Politics is no different. Cooperation, dialogue and a shared vision of the ultimate goal (even if the methods to get there may be subject to disagreement) are necessary for success.

My friends know that I have particular political views, but it doesn’t really matter what my political leanings are for the purposes of this discussion.

It is clear we need to focus on several basic areas, including:

  • Long-deferred maintenance on our infrastructure, and sorely needed upgrades,
  • Actually having an approved budget with fiscal goals and project planning that extends beyond one election cycle; and,
  • Improving efficiencies in government spending in general, and health-care spending in particular.

These changes seem unlikely to come from an entrenched, contentious government, but they need to come. They will only come when the rank-and-file population demands them. I believe that all governments, even authoritarian ones, eventually reflect the will and vision of the collective people. Sometimes this means material and economic success, sometimes it means failure of the government through election or revolution, and sometimes it even means chaos and a failed state.

The View from Asia

You should know that new construction is growing rapidly all over Asia. As I write this, I’m in southern Malaysia, across the strait from Singapore, and I can see construction tower cranes and high-rise buildings going up in every direction I look. Developments of 30, 50 even 70 stories high are common. And these are just a reflection of vibrant—frantic, really—construction and infrastructure growth. Traffic on divided (and often elevated) multi-lane highways is dense, and there can be traffic jams even in the middle of the day on weekends. This entire area is energized and active—and seeded with money and demand from China, not the U.S.

steel fabricator in China
China has real issues relating to both construction quality and environmental quality, but the country is taking rapid, giant strides in both areas.

These stories of intense construction and building activity are even greater in China proper. Granted, China has real issues relating to both construction quality and environmental quality, but the country is taking rapid, giant strides in both areas. The Chinese people are engaged and active. Riding the subway in Shanghai, every face is buried in a portable device. They are just as connected, tech-savvy and plugged into the web as in any western city, if not more so, and they are creating mostly their own apps and e-commerce. They aren’t on Facebook as much as WeChat. They don’t shop at Amazon; they use AliBaba.

China is a (the?) world player and becoming the de facto world leader. The country’s people are energized and optimistic. They see challenges as new opportunities. They almost never wanted to talk about politics. They didn’t want to alienate potential future customers or clients. While they currently don’t have much say in running their own political system, they look for ways to make it work for them. It seems every Chinese citizen thinks life will be better for their kids and grandkids. And there are four times as many of them as there are of us.

Turning It Around

China is taking its deserved reputation for terrible air quality and turning it into a reason to become a world leader in green technology. The country’s carbon emissions are dropping year-to-year as its economy expands. They are adding more electric automobiles, solar capacity and computing power annually than any other nation, including the U.S.

This was an opportunity that the U.S. has squandered. Our lack of long-term, focused action, and lack of political support due to intense lobbying from legacy fossil fuel interests, has kept us from leading the world in this critical area where we could have been far ahead technologically.

China’s government doesn’t hesitate to act, even when the public might not readily support the needed actions. Earlier this year we were in Shanghai for the Lunar New Year, and were looking forward to the celebrations with giant fireworks displays in the skies and firecrackers exploding by the tens of thousands on every street corner. Well, Beijing decided that there couldn’t be fireworks, of any kind, in any of the major cities, as a way to cut down on air pollution.

This is a thousand-year-old tradition and a cherished part of the New Year celebration. But there was not one firecracker heard over the entire week of celebration. No professional aerial displays, no back alley hidden strings of firecrackers. Chinese people traveled to their hometowns to celebrate with family and old friends and came right back to the city to get to work.

And the air in Shanghai was amazingly good for New Year’s.