Making Safety Systematic at City University of New York

Ensuring that all buildings and facilities are safe at the sprawling City University of New York (CUNY) is a big and never-ending job. The nation’s largest urban university and the third-largest public university system, CUNY has 198,000 students enrolled for degrees on 19 campuses in all five boroughs, plus 205,000 students taking continuing-education courses. It has about 650 buildings of all ages, types and sizes, including residence halls, offices, labs, athletic centers, theaters and even daycare centers.

The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) in Albany provides financing and construction project management services to CUNY and other public and private universities in New York. While safety has always been a priority, in 1999 DASNY decided to extend additional safety services to its customers. DASNY hired Bowman Specialty Services LLC, a New York-based loss-control and safety-engineering firm, for a rigorous college-inspection program in 2000. After a pilot program, DASNY implemented a year-round program at CUNY, starting in 2001.

Covering life, health and fire safety, the program provides annual loss-prevention surveys and detailed reports for buildings at every CUNY campus. The surveys identify specific problems, such as missing elevator safety signs or slip-and-fall hazards, and give DASNY and CUNY a clear picture of the safety issues common to all campuses in the system -- an immense help in planning and budgeting.

DASNY’s safety office coordinates the Bowman program, working with CUNY to coordinate the consultants’ campus visits and to distribute and release safety-related recommendations to the appropriate campus and CUNY officials. The two agencies work together to resolve pressing issues.

Why the Program Has Worked

Support from top to bottom: The program works best when all campus employees recognize the importance of safety issues. Before each survey, CUNY Assistant Safety Officer Esther Hundley and the consultant meet with the college’s vice president of administration or facilities, the campus environmental health-and-safety officer, the director of buildings and grounds, and facilities staff. The purpose of the meeting is to review progress since the last survey and discuss new procedures for this year’s visit, demonstrating to the staff that safety is a top priority.

At each campus, the consultant inspects each building from the basement to the rooftop, accompanied by a campus employee, most often a building engineer or security officer. At first, some employees were leery about a consultant invading their “turf.” But discussions between the campus and Bowman staff provide assurance that the surveys offer benefits beyond hazard control. Surveys also offer methods to improve the efficiency of the management of buildings and their operating systems, meaning fewer hazards and fewer emergencies for maintenance staff, students and faculty.

After the inspections, there’s a wrap-up meeting with the vice president to review the findings and recommendations. DASNY, CUNY and the college work together to resolve problems.

Critical information at a glance: The loss-prevention surveys contain spreadsheets that make it easy to pinpoint problems, track progress and spot trends. The recommendations are assigned into one of these major categories: maintenance/repairs, life safety, fire protection, security, electrical hazard, special hazards, housekeeping and trip/slip/fall. Each category is subdivided to identify specifically the hazards, such as “blocked drains/downspouts,” “protection for sharp objects,” “inadequate egress facility,” “fire door maintenance,” “improper/defective temporary wiring,” etc., followed by location (building, floor and room number). References are provided to identify the standard or code to which the college can refer for more information about hazard remediation. Reports are on paper now, but eventually the information will be available on a secure Website.

Immediate action: When the consultant finds a critical hazard, he writes an interim report and immediately sends it to DASNY, which alerts CUNY so it can work with the college to take fast, decisive action. Often, a hazard is remediated right on the spot. For example, one consultant found that childcare staff had placed bookshelves and a terrarium in a stairwell. When he explained that this could impede evacuation, the director removed the items. Similarly, a plant engineer removed flammable liquids stored in a mechanical room when he learned it was an unwise practice.

Capable people: The consultants need excellent technical and people skills. The Bowman staff, Pete Scala and Harry Nolan, have practical experience and academic knowledge, are down to earth and communicate well with the staff. They start out as “inspectors,” but end up as consultants working cooperatively with plant engineers and custodians, who learn new skills.

Program Benefits

Safer campuses and better regulatory compliance are the major benefits. CUNY facilities are regulated by many laws, agencies and codes, including New York City fire code, the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Americans With Disabilities Act. These codes sometimes conflict. The consultants know which code prevails and help staff formulate solutions to meet the most stringent code.

Additionally, the program has produced a much stronger relationship between the CUNY safety office and campus facility managers. They’re keeping each other better informed and are working as an effective team to ensure that facilities are maintained with safety in mind.

Regular inspections provide organized, documentary evidence instead of anecdotal knowledge. The program has identified and corrected many potential safety hazards, thereby reducing the risk of fires, accidents and injuries. It has worked to better ensure that buildings can be evacuated quickly in an emergency.

With DASNY’s assistance, safety has become systematized and institutionalized at CUNY. Safety is becoming an integral part of the annual planning process and part of CUNY’s culture.

Ann Elizabeth Dodson is the safety manager at the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, a public benefit corporation headquartered in Albany, N.Y. Esther Hundley is assistant safety officer with the City College of New York in Manhattan.