The terms special inspection, inspection, and structural observation constitute the three areas of quality control that may be provided on any construction project. Often, confusion exists in the minds of owners and contractors—as well as with the structural engineers themselves—as to a structural engineer’s responsibility within these three areas, especially during a site visit.

When conducting site visits, avoid operating under the limited assumption that they are merely opportunities to observe the progress and quality of a contractor’s work. The purpose of a site visit is to perform services outlined in the client/engineer agreement and the contract documents, and to exercise sensitivity for eliminating possible claims.

There is the danger that the structural engineer will cross the line between site observation and inspection when his observations become too detailed. This form of “scope creep” can result in undue liability and should be avoided as part of good risk management.

Of the three terms, the dictionary can readily define inspection and structural observation; however, special inspection (as used within the construction industry) is not consistent with the dictionary definition of inspection. To clarify, the terms—as well as who is typically responsible—are defined below.

Special inspection is a code-mandated review of specific structural elements on a project, which typically results in the submission of inspection reports to the building official, the structural engineer, and other designated parties. Special inspection might be required for processes such as welding, high-strength bolting, applying shotcrete, or prestressing steel tendons. In preparing the construction documents, the structural engineer may have some input on which special inspections are required, using the building code as a guideline. The structural engineer may be the special inspector if he has been trained to perform these tasks, and if the special inspection services have been specifically contracted for with the architect or owner. The special inspector also may be one or more qualified third parties who specialize in the type of inspection work specified. In many cases, several parties may provide the required special inspections necessary on a single project, one of which may be the structural engineer.

Conversely, inspection is a comprehensive, systematic, and detailed examination of all of the construction work in progress relative to the design concept shown on the contract documents.

Within the construction industry, a testing laboratory that is engaged by the owner usually employs the inspector.

Common inspection items include reinforcing steel placement, such as the verification of the size, spacing, and placement of all bars. Examination of critical welds using x-ray or other techniques is another common inspection item. The inspection usually includes a written report, or another form of communication, that is used by the contactor to correct defects.

Structural observation is the general review of the project at appropriate intervals during construction. The objective is to become generally familiar with the progress and quality of the contractor’s work and to determine if the work is proceeding in general accordance with the contract documents. Structural observation does not involve detailed inspections to provide exhaustive or continuous project review. The person observing the work does not guarantee the performance of, and shall have no responsibility for, the acts or omissions of any contractor, subcontractor, supplier, or any other entity furnishing materials or performing any work on the project.Observation is a contract-negotiated activity to be performed by the structural engineer as a part of his normal scope of services.

As a structural engineer, one of your roles when conducting site visits is to safeguard your firm against potential claims. While performing structural observations, oversights—such as failure to address small problems, ignoring breakdowns in communication, and not keeping file notes—are some of the behaviors that prevent structural engineers from effectively managing risk.

Early warning signs of potential claims—such as the contractor being behind schedule, failing to follow quality assurance procedures, and using poor communication—are issues that must be addressed as soon as they occur.

Usually, the problem is not the engineer’s inability to mitigate risk. The problem is that claims occur when structural engineers do not keep risk management in the forefront of their minds when conducting a site visit.

The Risk Management Program (RMP) is organized as a program of the American Council of Engineering Companies’ (ACEC) Coalition of American Structural Engineers (CASE). The group’s mission is to enhance risk management, loss prevention, and claims management techniques of the structural engineering profession.

Stuart Jacobson, P.E., is the president of Stuart K.Jacobson & Associates, Ltd., in Northbrook, Ill. Gary P.Ten Eyck, P.E., is vice president of UBSE, Inc., in Richardson, Texas. Both are members of the CASE-RMP Steering Committee.