Industrial Contractors/Managers Inc. on navigating USACE project standards

Of the 5,333 workplace fatalities that occurred in 2019, nearly 20% of victims were in the construction industry. Serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) in the construction industry have remained consistently high in recent years, and safety continues to be a top priority for employers in 2021.

If you work “inside the fence,” which is code for construction projects for a governing body or military base, you’re subject to high-spec standards — called Engineers Manual (EM) 385 — a nearly 900-page document issued by the United States Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) that provides guidelines on everything from indoor air quality management to waste disposal. However, these are not recommendations, but strict guidelines that must be followed on any and all government-sponsored projects.

EM385 offers a window into the plethora of government safety and quality standards, which can easily overwhelm a contractor of any size. While the guidelines are numerous, there are a few key methods for contractors to work effectively with government entities and successfully navigate the nearly endless standards inherent to EM 385. This type of work doesn’t have to be intimidating as long as contractors prepare ahead of time and understand how best to work inside the fence.




Safety Comes First

Safety is paramount to any government project, helping to ensure that every member
of the crew goes home to their families each night and that there aren’t any unnecessary glitches that could impact the budget or the schedule, which are notoriously tight. For this reason, government projects mandate safety plans for each and every phase of a project, submitted as an Activity Hazard Analysis (or AHA). AHAs give contractors and project owners the ability to manage, examine and document the risks involved in each hazardous workplace activity and are scrutinized well in advance of work commencing.

For a recent steel erection project at the Fort Carson military base in Colorado Springs, the AHAs had to be collectively submitted in November for work that wasn’t set to begin until February, and then each plan was reviewed again 5 days before each phase was set to start. This included a detailed look at how each truck would be offloaded, where materials would be laid out, how the steel would be physically erected, etc. While cumbersome, this helped ensure that all safety plans were understood and agreed upon by both the contractor and USACE running the project.


Quality Documentation Is Live & Living

The same can be said for quality planning, where the quality assurance plans must be submitted well ahead of time for each phase of a project and then reviewed and updated any time even a minor change is made. This is why quality documentation is considered “live and living,” as it must constantly keep up with the project as it evolves over time.


When it comes to quality documentation, it’s also important to translate expectations well ahead of time — from project managers to project owners to laborers — so that everyone is aware of the expectations going in and any time an issue arises, or a change needs to happen. That way, changes are understood and can be modified if what looks good on paper doesn’t make sense in the field. When working with the USACE, what you say is what they expect, so changes need to be communicated clearly and documented legibly so that there is a clear paper trail to turn in at the end of the project for quality verification purposes.


Background Checks Are Essential

Just as safety and quality assurance plans must be submitted up front, background checks must also be submitted well in advance of any project for all members of the crew. This can be tricky to navigate since most military bases and government entities have their own denying criteria, which can be different and subject to change at a moment’s notice — for one project, it may be 16 different factors another could be only five. These criteria can also change depending on the current threat level communicated by the Department of Homeland Security, including public health threats such as COVID-19. For a recent project in Colorado, only a badge was initially required for entry, but as COVID-19 became more of a threat, a work order and specific work dates were also required to enter a project each day.

Because background check criteria can be so different on projects, it’s important to screen your employees well in advance and be aware of any issues that could arise should they work on government projects down the road. This can include a wide range of charges — from assault to misdemeanors — so it’s important that your employees are honest up front in order to save you the hassle of unexpected surprises down the road.


Relationships Are Everything


In the commercial world, it’s not at all uncommon for projects to be awarded to the lowest bidder. But in the government world, this is rarely the case. Instead, contracts are usually awarded per technical proposal, which means you met the technical specifications of the contract and have a positive reputation affirmed by other governing bodies with whom you’ve worked with in the past.

This is confirmed through the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS) government website, which contains written reviews of a contractor’s work, given by other project owners or government contractors whom they’ve worked with in the past. CPARS can only be accessed by source selection officials and government officials, providing them with a record of both positive and negative assessments over a given period of time. Quality work begets more quality work, making it all the more important to put forth your best work every day since it will be categorized and documented for years to come.

While government work can feel intimidating based on the numerous factors at play, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming experience so long as you keep the above tips in mind. Once implemented a few times over, government work can be incredibly rewarding, both in terms of the reliability and the importance of the work at hand.