A refurbishment project for an underground rail network in London included escalator refurbishment works underway as part of the broader station refurb work.

At the bottom of this particular escalator, a large hoarding had been erected to separate passengers from what was a construction site. Behind the hoarding, a steel plate floor that lay in a structural steel grid had been lifted to expose the escalator machinery.

As project manager, I was awoken from my sleep at about 1 a.m. by my construction manager on site who said work had been halted for the night due to a ‘safety breach.’ I had a brief conversation with the safety inspector, who informed me that due to inadequate safety signage and risk of injury to personnel, he would not sanction work proceeding. I agreed to meet him at 7:30 the following morning to review this breach. With around 70 staff on site, it was an expensive call.

When we met at the offending hoarding, he pointed our shortcoming. There was a door in the hoarding, locked during traffic hours. On the door were several signs, including ‘Danger’, a typical ‘electrocution’ type notice, ‘Do Not Enter’, ‘Authorised Entry Only’ and a few others. You’d have thought it was a cigarette packet it so many warnings on it!

The main offending notice though related to the level differential that existed either side of the door. This sign, on a door that opened inwards, said ‘Danger, Deep Excavation.’

The safety inspector said that particular sign should be on the other side – the inside – of the door, which was not visible to anyone entering.

“Ah, so that when someone opens the door and steps through and falls two metres onto the cogs and gears of the escalator, as the door swings shut behind them and they lie there assessing the extent of their injuries, they can look up and realise, ‘ah, yes, deep excavation, that’s about right.’” I said, not a little sarcastically.

The really tragic thing about it all was, he couldn’t actually grasp it. The construction manager on site had had the very same conversation.  To resolve it, I had to get a senior safety officer to site that night to endorse our signage as appropriate.

The delay for the lost shift cost us about $25,000.

As a precursor to this, I was given a 12-page ‘fire report’ for the same project as the earlier incident, that purported to be ‘fire door repair scope of work.’

The matter came to light when an unpaid invoice (an internal one) was queried.

Not having seen the report, I got a copy and read it and the final paragraph summed up nicely what was required: ‘A fire consultant needs to be employed to determine the scope of repair work for the fire doors in the station.’

I explained to the fire engineer who wrote the report – at a cost of nearly $6,000 – that I had already hired a fire consultant: him. He explained that he and his ilk do not do scopes of work. They simply make recommendations, though not the type of recommendations required in the report. I ended the conversation with an assurance that I would not be paying for the report.

Some time later in the construction phase, I was emailed by the contractor’s project manager telling me that his proposed method statement for the repair of the fire doors, (yes, we finally got a scope from an external consultant) had been rejected.

I spoke to the fire engineer, who said the problem was that the method statement for repairing the doors proposed stripping areas of the door that need repairing, and applying the first of two coats of finish. The problem in his estimation was that when you apply the second coat, if the first coat has any dust or particles on it, then the second coat won’t take.

Of course, that didn’t appear to be an issue when the repair strategy was approved at the design stage, and the tender was based on the strategy as it stood. The fire engineer explained the approval was conditional on the final methodology being approved and suggested the solution would be to take the doors off-site and apply both coats in a dust-free environment.

When it was explained that such a tactic would mean there would be no doors and fire compartmentation would be breached (which is illegal), he suggested putting new ones in the place of the ones being painted until the painted ones could be fitted.

Fundamentally it worked and given its provenance, it ranked up there with great design service. I’m not sure what my actual response was, but it involved four-letter words and our actual solution was to create a type of tent around the door or group of doors, hoarding off corridors in some instances so as to protect the door from dust. The ludicrousness of the solution never registered with the creator.

In another case, when a railway company that shall be nameless was privatised, a role called asset engineer (AE) was created. This party was charged with policing, effectively on behalf of the government body that owned the railway, compliance with standards across the spectrum of station refurbishments.

This particular bone of contention was floor tiling. The standard test for tiling is a slip test, determining a converted coefficient of friction, with the standard being 40 on a wet tile.

The AE emailed me asking for the floor to be tested despite the fact that it had been tested and found to be compliant at completion/handover. He wanted it re-tested, knowing that in the intervening months, wear and tear could have easily made in non-compliant.

I invited him to go ahead and re-test it himself and even suggested I might come along to see how it went. This did not go down well.

The AE was employed by the same company I was working for as a consultant – the consortium that had secured the privatised element of the system, so when he referred to the company by saying “we want the floor re-tested” the term “we” was inappropriate. It implied that our common employer wanted the floor tested, but that wasn’t the case, it was the client body that required the test, Following privatisation of the business, the AE was having a bit of difficulty realising he was now employed by the private sector.

On pointing out that he was in fact acting to the detriment of the employer that paid his salary, I received no further communication until my boss asked me about a complaint that had been made by said AE, after which we had a meeting – me, him and my boss.

We went through the same rigmarole as before regarding slip testing, and having had several of these ‘battles’ before, I was rather well-versed in the standards that governed station refurbishment.

“Ok, so you’ve tested the slip resistance.”
“And you’re not prepared to test it again.”
“Did you test the different coloured floor tiles?”

“No. I’m not obligated to. The standard requires a number of tests per square metre of floor, not every colour laid.”

“Have you done a lighting reflectance test?”

“You’re required to do a reflectance test. It’s a requirement in the standard.”

“Not an absolute requirement. It’s conditional.”
“How is it conditional?”
“The standard only requires reflectance tests on stations that are, and I quote ‘permanently, artificially illuminated.’”

“Well there you are. It is.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Of course it is.”
“Would you agree that permanent means continual, perpetual, unceasing…”

“Yes, yes, I get permanent.”

“In which case the standard doesn’t apply.”

He looked perplexed, so I elucidated.

“Every year (nameless railway company) enacts an operation during which all generators and transformers are shut down at night, left down and then re started to make sure a) that they do and b) that back-up power system also work. The station is therefore not permanently artificially illuminated and the reflectance test does not therefore apply.”

Needless to say, there was a lot of bluster and indignation by way of response, but my stance remained the same. My boss agreed, and despite significant chagrin on the part of the AE, we never did that further slip test.

To be serious though, the manner in which one responds to these circumstances can vary from acquiescence to confrontation, with a whole area of grey in between. There are a number of strategies recommended for dealing with differing personality types depending upon the hierarchical relationship that prevails and other dynamics.

There are few projects of complexity within large organisations that do not have the odd individual whose stance is, shall we say, dogmatic and such behaviours tend to be a product of personality, experience, education, fear or a combination of all that and more.

They are not unusual, though, and they provide clear impediments to progression of project issues which PMs and others in a management role, need to resolve.

For myself I find that knowing the subject matter inside out plus a bit of sarcasm liberally laced with humour, goes a long way.