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'Safety is the most important challenge facing tunneling and underground construction....' Margaret Simonson, SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden


SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden is an essential resource for Sweden’s future. As a centre for research and innovation, it makes a vital contribution to the competitiveness of the business sector, and to the creation of a sound environment and a sustainable society. Their work is becoming increasingly international in client assignments and projects. With their strong research environment, they represent a significant knowledge resource and continue to develop by taking part in research programs and partnerships with universities and institutes, both in Sweden and abroad. Most of their research is of an applied nature, and they represent an important link between academic research and the business sector’s requirement for application. They share their knowledge through projects, courses, seminars, conferences and networks.

Q. What lessons can be learnt from your experience in working with underground construction?

SP Institute: Tunnels and underground structures are often complex requiring input and expertise from a variety of disciplines. Large scale construction projects require a multidisciplinary team of experts interacting across the spectrum of their expertise and that of others. Clearly language is a challenge (both in terms of spoken language and specific terminology that can be employed to mean different things in different disciplines). The Workshop we will conduct at this event will discuss international tunnel fire incidents and international regulations & guidelines that have been developed to combat risks. A presentation during the event will also outline the special risks associated with a tunnel during construction (when a tunnel is not a tunnel).

Q. Can you elaborate on 3 major challenges tunnelling and underground construction face during construction?

SP Institute: Clearly safety is the most important challenge facing tunneling and underground construction independent of terrain. This is true both during construction and after the structure is commissioned. Safety can be seen both in terms of adequate pre-incident planning and also in terms of incident management. Fire safety in tunnels and underground structures is fundamental due to the difficulty associated with communication, fire fighting and egress. Another major challenge in tunneling and underground construction is the fact that these facilities often cross boundaries between languages and cultures. The identification and use of a common language (spoken, aural and visual) is key to promoting correct use of such structures. Further, tunneling is an international market and teams from different countries are often present at the same time making communication planning and support very important, both for decreasing the risks for accidents and for making safe egress possible in case of a fire. Finally, another important issue during the construction of a tunnel is that the conditions continuously change, both when it comes to the layout of the construction site and the personnel and material present. The type of work performed can also vary significantly which poses a challenge to the contractor in keeping incident mitigation and management planning up to date.

Q. In relation to Q2 how can a contractor overcome these challenges?

SP Institute: During the construction phase a contractor needs to be able to ensure adequate safety both before penetration of the tunnel (i.e. when a tunnel is not a tunnel) and after. The construction phase represents special challenges as projected safety systems will not be implemented during the early stages of construction. The issue of language and communication is critical here as well, as major national and international projects often use a multinational team of experts. The challenges posed during the construction phase will be discussed in the paper presented during the conference. In terms of how a contractor can overcome language issues, information and communication throughout the organization at a construction site is key. Careful project planning and suitable management routines provide a sound basis for this communication.

Q. With regard to safety, what are the 3 most commonly repeated safety concerns that underground and tunnel contractors highlight and what would be your solutions to each of them?

SP Institute: Fire safety, the risk of collapse and the problems associated with safe egress or temporary evacuation to a safe haven. There are numerous solutions to these issues and international guidance documents provide input concerning, e.g. minimum detection equipment, fire fighting equipment, egress pathways etc. This will be discussed within the Workshop.

Q. Finally, in your opinion why do you think tunneling and underground engineers should attend this summit?

SP Institute: This meeting will provide an opportunity for engineers with different backgrounds to exchange experience from both research and construction projects from all over the world. The Workshop will give an opportunity to discuss both past experience of tunnel fire incidents and give some guidance concerning international safety regulations and guidelines for tunnels. Further emerging research will be presented offering delegates the opportunity to keep up with the state of the art in tunnel fire research.

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