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PennDOT District 11's Survey Unit During COVID-19

August 31, 2020 08:00 AM
By: Joel Morris

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PennDOT's District 11 Survey Unit is responsible for providing 3D data at project sites. This data is then compiled into a surface model that project managers, designers, and draftspersons can use to create construction plans, right-of-way plans, bridge structure details and monitoring, geotechnical data, utility locations, hydrographic and hydrology studies, and any request requiring 3D data.

The Survey Unit uses the newest technology to obtain the 3D data - including traditional survey tools, electronic total stations and data collectors, automatic levels, and LiDAR laser scanners. Recently, they have begun using UAS (drone) technology.

They also establish and stake right of way lines, centerline alignments for construction, and can assist Department construction and maintenance crews when construction of a project is underway. 

The Survey Unit is comprised of 3 field survey crews – 3 Survey Technician Supervisors and 9 Survey Technicians. 

Q&A with Kevin Lira, PLS

Kevin Lira, PLS, is the District 11 Chief of Surveys and has been a Registered Professional Land Surveyor in Pennsylvania since 1999.  He has been with PennDOT since March 2013. Prior to joining PennDOT, Kevin worked for a PennDOT consultant and a private land surveying/land development business since 1988. 

Q:  What did a "typical" day look like for the Survey Unit prior to COVID-19?

A:  A typical day prior to the adjustments for COVID-19 safety involved the crews reporting to a maintenance shed to assemble and commute to a job site in a Survey Unit truck. That involved 5 crew members being in one vehicle.  At the job site, the crew had to set up Maintenance and Protection of Traffic (MPT) warning signs as a group – standard roadside warning signs of a work zone and/or flagging traffic, if needed.  Mostly the crew was spread out once survey work began but they remained in communication by using hand held radios.  Breaks and lunches involved the crew being back in the truck or surrounding the truck while they ate, rested, or warmed up/cooled down during breaks.

Q:  In what ways did COVID-19 change that and how did you all adapt?

A:  A collaboration of the District Chiefs of Surveys and Survey Supervisors began with discussions on our operations, identifying activities that would not follow social distancing protocols.  Until those activities were identified and alternate social distancing protocols were proposed and approved, the survey crews could not work in the field.  Safety protocols enacted involved:

  • Survey crew members reporting to the assembly points as normal, but from there they commute to the work sites in their own vehicles, with the Supervisor operating the survey crew truck. 
  • No crew members can ride together, sit in vehicles together or enter the cab of the survey truck.  
  • Setting of MPT warning signs is done individually, which takes longer.  Also, the signs are either covered or set onto the ground at the end of the day to minimize the time to set up and tear down and handle the traffic signs and stands.
  • Some of their job duties were no longer rotated. The instrument person became the only person that would operate the survey instrument due to the handling and close up operation.
  • All equipment and tools have to be wiped down with cleaning solution and rags at the beginning and end of each work day.
  • Masks were distributed and were required to be worn any time out of their vehicles. Hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes/sprays were also distributed to the survey crew members.
  • Protocols were also discussed on how to handle the public if approached with questions, as social distancing must be followed.
  • Once daily field operations resumed, there was daily tracking of who and where each crew worked and had any contact.
  • Once the outdoor temperatures became hotter, it became more difficult to breathe during field work exertion.  I believe maintenance was experiencing the same. A heat index chart/guide was put out from PennDOT's Central Office that allowed field personnel to remove face masks at times of high temperature and humidity within certain rules. Employees still needed to maintain social distancing and replace if in close contact with another worker. The clear plastic face shields were discussed as an alternative but were never used by the survey crews.

Overall, the crew adapted very quickly and had no issues once we began field work again.

Q:  Do you expect any permanent changes in the way you perform your operations?

A:  I don't believe any of our changes will become "permanent."  Mostly, our changes have been for social distancing.  As long as social distancing is in effect, we will continue using these safety protocols. However, the changes we have made do affect our overall productivity to a small degree.

Q:  For those who may not be familiar, what's one thing you'd like to share with folks about the Survey Unit?

A:  I would like to point out to other employees that the survey crew is one of the front-line units. The crews have gone back to work in the public to allow for our critical projects to begin again. At any time, we can also be called out if an emergency were to happen.  Every day that is worked by a surveyor is spent all day in the field in whatever weather is active that day (cold, heat, rain, wind, snow). 

Now they must continue that with the additional health and social distancing protocols they must follow for everyone's safety. A normal day is to work together to help each other stay safe from hazards, traffic, wildlife and ticks, and now to keep awareness of social distancing and other COVID-19 safety protocols.