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Anyone who has worked on a construction site will know that it can get loud. Really loud.

Between tool noises, sounds of materials being moved, the crunch of boots on gravel, vehicles entering or exiting the lot, nearby road traffic and any number of other noise sources, hearing the person three feet in front of you can be nearly impossible. Heavy equipment like excavators or cement mixers are often so loud that you can barely hear yourself think, especially if you are wearing the recommended level of hearing protection.

In situations like this, unclear communication can cause many hazards. A project could get badly damaged, setting your crew back days. Even worse, someone could get seriously injured — even killed.

To prevent disastrous consequences like these, protocols must be established for high noise situations. Hand and arm signals are often the method of choice. Develop a system of specialized hand signals in order to communicate effectively and safely no matter how loud it can get. Rehearse the signals and train your whole crew on how to use them and how to follow them. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

Start With the Basics

Hand signals are most commonly used for large equipment like cranes, but they have practical applications in more general fields of construction. Every crew member should be familiar with at least a basic set of signals so that everyone can be safe and also effective at communicating in a high noise environment.

Some ground rules:

  • Consult a guide book for inspiration on common hand signals that are clear and effective
  • Feel free to modify hand signal to suit your personal needs, but document them in a clear way and have someone evaluate any changes
  • Signals should remain as consistent as possible between crews and jobs
  • Standardized hand signals can be posted in visible sites in addition to break rooms and heavy equipment cabs
  • Every crew member should be familiar with some basic signals, including:
    • HALT your work
    • TURN OFF your equipment
    • WATCH OUT for incoming hazards
    • COME HERE so I can give you instructions
    • MOVE left, right or DUCK so that you will be clear of hazards
    • Other signals like 5 MINS UNTIL BREAK can help parties communicate and avoid confusion
  • Notify workers of any changes to signals as they occur
  • Have everyone rehearse signals; have anyone who is giving unclear signals practice until they can effectively communicate with the crew

Heavy Equipment Signaling

Radio communications are often used to relay messages between heavy equipment operators and spotters or other workers. Clear line-of-sight communication should also be used to prevent any mixed messages coming from radios and nearby crews.

When signaling heavy equipment operators:

  • You are strongly encouraged to consult charts like in the S. Army Corps of Engineers Crane Signal handbook
  • Only one spotter at a time is allowed to be giving signals with the exception of a STOP/HALT order
  • Signaler must ensure that other workers are completely in the clear before loads or equipment are moved, especially when loads are being dropped or lowered
  • Operators should be instructed to halt immediately if sight lines are broken
  • Review hand signals before the operator gets in the cab

Following protocols like these keeps workers safe and prepared to communicate effectively even when the entire job site is roaring with activity. Job place safety should be the most important priority, and clear communication in all scenarios will certainly help.

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