Halifax Harbour Bridges put safety first during the Big Lift

A quirky safety manager, an involved CEO and a commitment to keeping contractors focused on safety contributed to the success of a once-in-a-lifetime project

Halifax Harbour Bridges put safety first during the Big Lift


For just the second time in history, a busy commuter bridge has been raised and the road replaced, without completely closing to the public. The 1.3-kilometre bridge had 46 deck segments that were systematically removed during overnight work and replaced with new ones. The $200-million project took a total of eight years, from board approval to completion, and involved about 520 workers. 

The Big Lift, as it was known by the locals, took place on the Angus Macdonald Bridge in Halifax, which sees about 48,000 crossings daily. 

“It was a monstrous project. The term of it and the fact that it was so incredibly technical and there were so many dimensions to it made it a world-calibre thing,” says Joe Treen, occupational health and safety director for Safety Services Nova Scotia in Dartmouth, N.S. “And there were a lot of parties involved… It’s got all of the red flags you could ever imagine on a project like this.”

As the project followed a well-defined strict timeline, safety had a timeline of its own, too.


May 2010: Hired Safety Pete

Halifax Harbour Bridges, the organization that operates and manages the city’s Macdonald Bridge and A. Murray MacKay bridge, knew it had its work cut out  when it received board approval for the re-decking of the Macdonald Bridge in 2010. The organization had been trying — without expertise — to improve what it had been doing on the occupational health and safety side, says Jon Eppell, project manager for the Big Lift.

“We recognized that we needed a safety champion, that delegating safety to all the various managers and people in the organization wasn’t going to get us where we wanted to be. We wanted to really be better,” he says.

The company went in search for a safety manger and hired Peter Hollett, who had been working in Calgary at the time. Safety Pete, as he is known in the organization, was hired to shake things up a bit.

“One of the big selling points with us with Peter was not only his experience and competence in safety but his energy and enthusiasm — and his quirkiness because we wanted to really drive safety and get the attention of everybody here,” says Eppell. “At that stage, people had been working here for 25 years who were firmly entrenched in how things should be done and how they had always done them.”

An example of this quirkiness is Hollett’s Bee Safe campaign. He periodically dons a yellow headpiece with antennas and bug eyes that looks just like a bee, and makes buzzing noises around employees to remind them to work safely. He hands out bumble bee stickers and “stress bees” (like stress balls) to drive the message home. 

When Hollett came on, he brought in Safety Services Nova Scotia to audit the organization’s safety program, and it received a mere 64 per cent. But a lot of progress has been made: In the last two years, the audit scores have been 96 and 98 per cent. 


February 2011: CEO commitment

Having a CEO who placed a high priority on safety was crucial for a project like the Big Lift. One year after Hollett joined Halifax Harbour Bridges, he asked the CEO, Steve Snider, to sign a leadership safety charter to demonstrate his commitment. 

“You can’t drive safety from the bottom up. He had to demonstrate to us, per se, that he was going to walk the talk,” says Hollett. 

Signing the charter not only showed the 35 Halifax Harbour Bridges employees that safety was going to be a top priority throughout the Big Lift, it also set the standard for the contractors on site. 

According to Hollett, achieving safety excellence requires going beyond the traditional safety focus of engineering and regulations and moving safety “from the head to the heart.” 

“It can’t come from the safety manager. I can champion it, I can be the bus driver but without the support from the person who wields the power, so to speak, then you’re only going to be so successful,” he says.  

During the Big Lift, Snider was on site many times in full personal protective equipment (PPE), speaking to the workers and reminding them to work safely. 

“He’s a very hands-on kind of guy,” says Treen. “He talks to everybody, he knows everybody’s families, he’s a real person.” 

Snider has demonstrated time and time again that he is supportive of his employees when it comes to safety, says Treen.

“Every employee there has a strong feeling if they ever need something, if it ever truly was a safety concern, that Steve would have their back under any circumstance. It wouldn’t make any difference who was calling them out, he would have their back every single time,” he says.


December 2013: Tender issued

As the owner of the project, it was very important for Halifax Harbour Bridges to select a constructor (also known as prime contractor or principle contractor in some jurisdictions) that took safety very seriously.

The organization took a seven-step approach as to how it would address safety, regardless of who was awarded the contract, which included: management leadership; worker cooperation and participation; hazard identification and assessment; hazard prevention and control; education and training; program evaluation and improvement; and communication and co-ordination.

Three contractors were invited to submit tenders and their safety record and practices were scrutinized as part of this process. In the end, American Bridge Canada was chosen. American Bridge had completed the only other similar project of this size on the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver in 2000.

“They had to meet our expectations when it came to safety. And our expectations were set very, very high,” says Hollett. “We weren’t going to have them bring people on board and start hurting people. We made that perfectly clear to them.”

Senior executives from both Halifax Harbour Bridges and American Bridge Canada met to set expectations for the project — and a big part of that conversation was around both worker safety and public safety. 

While it is the constructor who bears the biggest burden for safety, the project owner still has significant responsibilities, including ensuring the overall health and safety of persons at the workplace, maintaining compliance with the health and safety act at all times and communicating hazards to employers working on the site, says Treen. And if there is a major incident or fatality at the site, the project owner could face significant fines or jail time. 

Quite often when employers position themselves as the owner, they mistakenly believe they have a low level of responsibility and can take a hands-off approach, says Treen.

“They say, ‘Well it’s in the contract. They have to comply with the OHS act,’ and that’s lovely; however, that’s not necessarily meeting that due diligence threshold to doing everything reasonable,” he says.


March 2015: On-site work begins

In March 2015, contractors began the preliminary work on the bridge that was required before the decks themselves were replaced. 

One of the initial projects that took place was around lead paint. Because the bridge was originally painted with lead-based paint — and then touched up with it over the years — a lead abatement program was needed. Halifax Harbour Bridges asked American Bridge Canada to involve an industrial hygienist in developing the program. A contractor was hired to do controlled and enclosed blast removal of the lead-based paint before workers could drill into the existing steel. Training and equipment was provided to ensure workers were not over-exposed to paint chips or fumes that contained lead.

To ensure it was fully aware of what was happening on the bridge at all times, Halifax Harbour Bridges had its own boots-on-the-ground safety advisor. 

“Although we weren’t responsible for enacting the safety directly, we were auditing what they were doing and checking up on them and trying to influence a positive safety environment out there,” says Eppell.

Halifax Harbour Bridges actively monitored the work that American Bridge Canada and its contractors were doing and if an issue was found, it immediately went to American Bridge management to have something done about it, says Treen. It’s important to note that as the project owner, Halifax Harbour Bridges could not legally direct the work. For example, if Hollett saw a worker not wearing a hard hat — whether he be an employee of American Bridge or one of the many contractors — he could not go directly to that worker; he had to communicate with an American Bridge foreman about the issue and let him handle it.

“That was our performance protocol: to make sure we were engaged in safety but we had a fine line that we were not allowed to not step across,” says Hollett.

The Halifax Harbour Bridges safety advisor attended all of American Bridge’s safety meetings every week and he reviewed its job hazard assessments.

“We would review that to make sure all the critical tasks were identified. I mean when you’re lifting 130-tonne parts with a 300-tonne crane, these are critical tasks,” says Hollett. 


October 2015: First deck segment installed

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about working on a bridge is fall protection. Halifax Harbour Bridges ensured American Bridge had a very robust fall protection program, requiring 100 per cent tie-off. All of the workers on site were required to have well-maintained and properly inspected fall protection equipment at all times.

Rescue was a key component of the fall protection program. Halifax Harbour Bridges required American Bridge to conduct high-angle rescue drills with its workers.

“This is not an environment where the normal public emergency response system will be able to handle these situations. We are well outside of their range of abilities as well. When they’re out that high over water, the fire department putting up a ladder just isn’t an option,” says Treen.

Something that was unique about this project was that it involved multiple levels of government. The harbour itself is federal, the bridge is a provincial structure and there is a Department of National Defence naval base below the bridge. A lot of communication was required with these agencies throughout the project. 

“Any time a ship was coming through and we were doing cutting of a segment and we were flying torches and dropping 30 feet of spark, we couldn’t have an oil tanker go under the bridge,” Hollett says.

At times, work activities had to come to a complete stop so ships could travel under the bridge. This was a bit of a learning curve for the workers on site.  

“There were a couple of occasions where we didn’t get the acknowledgement that we were clear sent back, and so the (captain) is 3 miles out trying to make a decision as to whether he has to hit all-halt or can proceed,” says Eppell. “The contractor is saying, ‘Well I can’t even see the ship, why the heck should I stop my work?’”

Due to the Department of National Defence base below, a dropped objects prevention program was very important for this project.

“Dropping something onto a piece of sensitive military equipment, even if it was as small as a nut, could have long-ranging implications,” says Treen.

There were also businesses, pedestrian walkways, residential areas and roadways under segments of the bridge. If any worker dropped anything, Halifax Harbour Bridges wanted to know about it. 


March 2016: The big delay

The majority of the work on the bridge was done during overnight closures. The bridge was supposed to re-open for the morning commute at 5:30 a.m., but one day it didn’t open until 9:50 a.m., with just one lane open in each direction. The third middle lane — which changes direction based on traffic flow — did not open until 11 a.m.

“The entire city went into gridlock. It was a catastrophe. You couldn’t move anywhere. It just plugged everything solid,” says Treen.

Despite a few late openings like this and working in tight deadlines, Halifax Harbour Bridges ensured the contractors never wavered on safety — something that Treen uses as an example for other employers.

“We always hear the complaints from companies and from people saying, ‘Oh well the safety stuff takes so much time and we don’t have time to do that. We’re under pressure, deadline and everything else, but that’s a pretty heavy duty pressure deadline — when you know there’s thousands of cars waiting at 5:30 a.m. to cross that bridge,” says Treen.

Snider, the CEO of Halifax Harbour Bridges, had been put under the gun by the media a few times for delays, but he stayed firm in the importance of safety, even though it caused a lot of grief, says Treen.

“I give him credit for keeping his heels dug in and saying, ‘No. We’re not going to do this unless we can do it safely. Nobody’s going to die on
this job.’”


September 2016: Lifting gantry modifications

Throughout the project, the bridge not only moved up and down, but it somewhat unexpectedly moved horizontally. The device that was used for replacing the segments — called the lifting gantry — was a steel frame with strand jacks on it that were clamped on to vertical orange hanger ropes. Because the bridge moved longitudinally, they weren’t vertical anymore, meaning the cable going through the clamps was bent. When workers went to remove a clamp, one sprang off and landed on the deck because it was load-bound, says Eppell.

“At that point we had to modify the procedure. We put in a longitudinal strut to jack the lifting gantry so that it would take out the kink, in effect, removing any force and allow you to move the clamps,” he says.

Whenever there was a near-miss event that had the potential for any type of injury, such as this one, Halifax Harbour Bridges would request that American Bridge Canada hold a safety stand-down to discuss what happened and how it could be prevented.

“When something like this takes place, pretty much work activities get put on hold until they resolve the issue,” says Hollett. 


January 2017: The big wind

The conditions the individuals working on the Big Lift faced were not easy. Much of the work took place at night, so visibility was always a concern. The contractors did a great job of lighting and eliminating dark corners as much as possible, but working at night is still difficult, says Treen.

“Your depth perception is not the same at night as it is in the daytime hours. You’ve got shadows that affect your depth perception as well as the glare. Depending on how you’re positioned, you might be looking into one of these bright lights,” he says.

Nighttime work was made even more challenging when the weather was not co-operating. Some nights they were not able to work due to the weather. In January 2017, there were a few weeks with more work cancellations than usual due to snowfall, extreme cold and wind.

“It can be everything from a crystal clear lovely evening to intense fog that you can hardly see your hand in front of you face and rainy winds of 70 knots howling across,” says Treen. “All of this while lifting these massive segments up.”

Working in such difficult conditions can be tiring, so fatigue was certainly on the radar of Halifax Harbour Bridges. It asked to see crew schedules throughout the project to ensure workers had suitable rest days. These workers would not traditionally be night shift workers, so it was very important to monitor them for signs of fatigue.

“Switching over to working nights is a different animal,” says Treen. “If somebody comes in excessively fatigued, we need a system to pull them off and keep them out of trouble and maybe assign them other duties.” 


February 2017: Final deck segment installed

Considering the size and scope of the project — and the fact that it had only been done once before in the entire world — Hollett deems it very successful. 

Halifax Harbour Bridges reviewed the monthly safety performance reports for the constructor and the contractors, and the injuries were pretty minor over the course of the Big Lift. From the start of the project in 2010 to date, work was never stopped due to a safety incident and there were no fatalities. 

“They did a wonderful job in managing their safety,” Hollett says. “An ambulance was only called twice. That’s pretty darn good, really.”

But an excellent safety record over the course of the Big Lift project was not the only thing Halifax Harbour Bridges celebrated.

“There was a few marriages and a couple babies born over the course of the project,” says Eppell. “But no bad news.”

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 issue of COS.