Project Management: Don’t Stop At The Drawings

Nov. 6, 2019
A project engineer’s familiarity with the design can improve construction activities


A pipefitter was welding within a few feet of a chloro-silicon tank. That wasn’t the only hazard. No safety shield was up, so the flash from the torch could blind drivers on a plant road only ten yards away. Light cables were lying about and we expected rain and sleet later. The foreman was nowhere to be seen. So, even though I was only a contract engineer on the project, I stepped in and gently touched the pipefitter’s shoulder while looking down and away from the torch arc. I began with, “Are you aware …” Then, I explained what was wrong.

Some engineers forget that projects don’t end once drawings are handed in. You have a professional responsibility to ensure the work is done right, nobody gets hurt on your watch, and the customer is satisfied and knows how your project changed its work environment. You probably can’t do this by spending all of your time in a comfortable office.

Companies should realize the contribution project engineers can make during construction activities. Unfortunately, far too often, firms don’t. I’ve seen project engineers assigned to new projects, trying to juggle multiple projects, and even away overseas in training during construction. This is foolish and risky. After all, who knows the project better than the engineer who prepared the design package. Construction support isn’t something you can phone in. The project engineer ultimately is responsible for the success of the project.

As a project engineer, your part in the construction should start in the shop a few weeks before on-site work begins. Talk to the people welding the pipe spools or wiring a control panel. Ask them if they have any questions. Fix any problems spotted in the shop right there.

On the first day of construction, meet the crew. Ask if they need anything. Check out their work bench. Is it safe? Do they know what to do if there’s an accident, a plant release, etc.? Do they have a contact with operations? Are they having trouble getting permits signed? Do they have toilets, a rest area, phone numbers and radio channels? How do they reach you? If you don’t see other engineers in the area supporting their projects, take responsibility for their crews.

Keep in mind one truth about construction: foremen aren’t always where they should be. Other jobs on site and even elsewhere may draw them away, or their responsibilities for coordination and logistics may intrude. So, you must be prepared to fill in.

Make it a habit to visit the work area several times a day. Stand at a distance. Take lots of pictures as the construction begins and thereafter. This may be the only opportunity you have to see beneath insulation or inside equipment such as reactors, heat exchangers and distillation towers.

Watch people work. Look for problems. I once spent two hours finding an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule on scaffolding because I wasn’t happy with a platform without handrails and kickplates. The foreman argued that 36 inches wasn’t a big gap but I found that OSHA considered 14 inches the maximum. So, I required workers on the scaffolding to wear harnesses. A week later, the insulators forgot their harnesses but I was there to remind them; some clever fellow had added unapproved, unsecured planks. As I said, your work isn’t done until the project is handed off to operations.

Later, I found pipefitters standing on new ¾-in. pipe. I stepped in and had them take the threaded pipe apart until they had completed the 8-in. pipe above. Nobody liked me that day. A week before, I was all over that crew for using the flange bolts on a spiral heat exchanger as anchor points to lift the evaporator into place. I pushed for a pneumatic test of the entire system, outraging both the construction engineer and the foremen. However, we indeed did find leaks in the spools and that heat exchanger.

A project engineer’s goal during construction isn’t to win a popularity contest. Your job is to ensure the job is done safely as well as making certain the crew is hydrated, comfortable and on peaceful terms with plant personnel and each other.

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. You can email him at  [email protected]
About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.