The Everywhere Inspectors
Caltrans inspectors travel the nation and the world to ensure quality materials and service.
Sort of like the Johnny Cash song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” a cadre of Caltrans structural materials representatives and quality assurance inspectors go to great lengths to ensure quality materials are used for District 7 projects. Living out of their suitcases, jetting to factories across the United States and the world, these inspectors have a very essential job.
A traffic signal pole from Nebraska or Illinois or Texas, metal piles from Utah, bridge beams from England, and steel girders from Brazil. Many of the components that are used to build bridges, freeways, highways, traffic signals, and other features of the transportation infrastructure are built in far flung corners of the globe. Before these items end up in District 7, they have to be inspected at the source of fabrication by inspectors from the Materials Engineering and Testing Service’s (METS) Los Angeles office.
“We ensure that the materials will perform as needed,” said Branch Chief, Jimmy Oladokun. “Inspectors monitor the process of fabrication to ensure compliance.” In 2006, Oladokun spent 25 days at a factory in Japan inspecting metal works that were going to be used to hold a bridge together.
The standards for materials are very exacting. “We inspect materials from the mines before they are melted down to create our materials,” said Structural Materials Representative, Mohammed Shamol. Shamol has visited India, Chicago, Oklahoma, New York, and Boston, to name a few.
“Some of the metal supports that allow the Vincent Thomas Bridge to sway were imported from China, Japan, and Mexico,” said Oladokun.
Many of the inspectors have certifications in welding and will actually watch huge industrial machines bend, stretch, roll, and weld tons of metal at a factory.
Inspectors help prevent catastrophes before they occur. “If the welding is not properly done and the thickness of the item is not up to standard it could fail or not operate properly,” said Shamol.
As for traffic signal poles, Shamol said, “If we do not go to the factories to check the welding of the poles, it is quite likely that the resident engineer at the construction site will not accept them.”
This job occasionally requires inspectors to leave on short notice. “If an emergency contract is issued and work needs to start right away, but the materials are manufactured in Chicago, Jimmy might call me the night before and tell me I need to fly out as soon as possible,” said Shamol. So if a section of freeway is damaged by a natural disaster or something else, one of the inspectors is probably on their way to factory somewhere where in the world.
“This job is very challenging,” said Biman Roy, another METS member. “There is lots of technical work, but once a project is completed it is very satisfying to know that I have contributed to its quality and completion.”
METS has offices in Los Angeles, Vallejo, and Sacramento. Each office serves several districts in each region of California. One of METS’ largest projects is the construction of the new Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay. There is a mixed team of 40 Caltrans and consultant inspectors in China overseeing materials being used on the new bridge.
Just like the materials used to build many of America’s early public works, they had to have the right material to last for decades, and the right people overseeing the quality of the materials used. Here at Caltrans the tradition carries on.