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Safety: The throughline of the Francis Scott Key Bridge response

Kodell Harris, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District safety and occupational health specialist, conducts a site visit of the lay-down site at Sparrows Point, Maryland, May 1, 2024. An estimated 50,000 tons of concrete and steel fell into the Patapsco River when Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed. The Key Bridge Response 2024 Unified Command’s priorities are to ensure the safety of the public and first responders, account for missing persons, safely restore transportation infrastructure and commerce, protect the environment, and support the investigation of the incident.

Posted on May 6, 2024

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed March 26, hundreds of responders arrived on the scene to form a Unified Command, coalescing to lend their expertise to begin the salvage work necessary to return the Port of Baltimore to its former operational capacity. Though these personnel all have many varied occupations, the one thing all must share is a central focus on safety to help ensure an already complex and dangerous mission isn’t exacerbated by incidents that might endanger personnel or compromise the response. Safety specialists are essential to this effort.

“The main priority of a safety specialist is to have technical expertise on the ground to make sure employees are proactively mitigating risk in their roles,” said Kodell Harris, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Baltimore District safety and occupational specialist currently assigned to the response mission. “We ask ourselves ‘how might people have forgotten these principles?’ and work to close the gaps to make safety successful.”

Within the Key Bridge Response Unified Command, the U.S. Coast Guard is overseeing the overall safety program, but Harris is responsible for ensuring USACE employees, as well as its contractors, are following the principals of the Corps of Engineers Safety & Occupational Health Management System (CE-SOHMS). This methodology is required by regulation and supported by USACE leadership to fully integrate safety and occupational health functions into all USACE business operations. Ultimately, USACE’s own best practices fold into the Unified Command’s multi-agency safety practices that are essential to the Key Bridge response.

“For one thing, we are checking that the people in the field are wearing their personal protection equipment (PPE) and making sure they maintain constant situational awareness in an enormously dynamic environment,” said Harris. “We need to ensure our employees are very clear on policy, procedure and expectation.”

Though the work being performed by surveyors, divers, crane operators and other highly trained positions is inherently dangerous, this focus doesn’t simply apply to those in the field. Harris and others in his specialty must also regularly inspect and evaluate the Incident Command Post (ICP) where most of the central administrative functions take place.

“Just because some of our people aren’t out on the water doesn’t mean there aren’t safety considerations in the workplace,” he said. “We integrate well with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Coast Guard to ensure the information we put out is correct. I send out a daily message to the team on the ground to emphasize the importance of safety. I’m also out on the vessels two to three times a week performing safety checks and providing any additional training our people may require, such as how to report incidents or injuries.”

This focus on safety is top of mind for all teams. During the first month of the response, the Unified Command hasn’t had any significant reported safety incidents, a testament Harris says to personnel adhering to PPE and operational safety requirements.

“We in the safety community rely on each other in a joint environment,” he said. “Our ability to be called upon for our expertise is how we build a true community of practice. This effort is about constant collaboration and knowing the operational landscape. Working together, we will help our teams keep up the momentum in reaching the milestones of this mission without safety incidents or infractions.”


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