The College of Engineering at Oregon State University is developing one of the leading facilities in the world to improve safety for construction workers and the general public.

A $1 million grant announced recently from Knife River Corporation and MDU Construction Services Group will help support creation of this laboratory, which will be called the MDU Resources Group Construction Safety Laboratory, officials said.

It may look majestic, but cleaning and maintaining the top of this dome is also a precarious job. Research leaders at Oregon State University are working on a "prevention through design" safety concept that might help minimize such risks. (Photo courtesy of Oregon State University)

“This lab establishes us as the principal national facility for construction and transportation safety research and education,” said Scott Ashford, the dean and Kearney Professor of Engineering at the OSU College of Engineering.

“We’re delighted to partner with Knife River and MDU Construction Services Group on this critically important project,” Ashford said. “These two companies are industry leaders in safety, and their commitment to our program will allow us to further advance processes and technologies that will help to better prevent workplace injuries.”

When complete, the lab will have two components to create a virtual construction environment that replicates real-world jobsites. An interactive, high-definition projection system will allow multiple users to conduct sample work operations without actually putting workers at risk for injury. And a connected driving simulator will help evaluate driver and worker actions as vehicles pass through a work zone.

“This project provides a virtual environment where industry and academia can work together on real-world solutions,” said Jeff Thiede, president and CEO of MDU Construction Services Group.

The lab will also expand and enhance an initiative begun several years ago at OSU to yield major improvements in worker safety by emphasizing “prevention through design.” This concept emphasizes safety consideration at the very design stage to make buildings, bridges, roadways and other structures safer both to build and to maintain.

“There’s a long history in the construction industry of architects and design engineers leaving construction safety up to the builder or contractor, saying it wasn’t really the designer’s concern,” said John Gambatese, an OSU professor of civil engineering, leader in this new movement and a national expert in construction design and safety.

“Some of this dates historically to the separation between owner, architect, contractor, maintenance and construction worker,” Gambatese said. “There are also legal and liability issues. But there are many ways we can improve construction safety with this approach.”

OSU researchers and other experts eventually see construction safety, both in design and job-site activities, as becoming one component of “green” construction concepts, and adding a social aspect to the idea of sustainability. Based in part on OSU research, the U.S. Green Building Council recently added a pilot “prevention through design” credit to their rating system for sustainable buildings.

This emphasis on safety is needed, OSU researchers said. Construction is a traditionally dangerous profession, with such risks as falls from an elevated height, electrocution, trench cave-ins, and many lesser workplace injuries.

The new laboratory at OSU will be able to simulate some of these situations on the jobsite, helping to identify safer ways to work while also studying improved productivity and minimizing costs, officials said.