Digital Bridge Inspection Checklist: Is It Time to Move Into the Future?

Are you still using paper checklists when inspecting bridges? Have you considered moving into the modern age and going digital? 

Find out what you need to know so you can decide if shifting to a checklist app is a smart move for you.

What is a bridge inspection checklist?

A checklist is a document or form used by bridge inspectors when conducting inspections. It’s a way to ensure that all parts of a bridge inspection are performed completely, thoroughly, and accurately. It also serves as a tool to record what’s discovered and recommendations for next steps, such as additional inspections, repairs, and emergency maintenance. A bridge inspection checklist can be filled out manually on paper or using a tablet, computer, or smartphone.

Why are bridge inspections necessary?

Bridges across the United States are used by millions of people every day. They play a critical role in the nation’s economy, moving raw materials and goods from place to place and getting employees and customers to businesses.

More than two out of three bridges in the United States have exceeded their useful design lives of 50 years. During that time, they’ve experienced normal wear and tear, weather-related damage, issues connected with structural flaws, and other things that can lead to failures or closures. Regular and complete bridge inspections can identify critical warning signs that a bridge could experience a structural failure, putting the public at risk of high-fatality disasters and presenting threats to the local economy surrounding a compromised bridge.

Regular bridge inspections also help governments save money. Preventative maintenance is usually less costly compared to repairs. Timely bridge inspections help engineers spot minor structural flaws so they can take steps to resolve them before they become high-cost, high-risk issues.

The data and other information from bridge inspections can also help plan future repair and maintenance efforts. A regular, ongoing record of every bridge in the United States helps optimize those maintenance efforts and determine where and how to build the best, most needed, and best-engineered viaducts.

What are the different bridge inspection types?

Bridges undergo different types of inspections based on their age, condition, and particular circumstances, especially if there’s a need to look into possible structural damage after a natural disaster or catastrophe. Each inspection type is designed to contribute to bridge safety and stability in different aspects of its operation.

What follows are the types of bridge inspections conducted by civil engineers and licensed bridge inspectors.

Initial bridge inspection

This is the first inspection done on newly constructed or rehabilitated bridges. The Federal Highway Administration recommends that these reviews be completed before vehicles and other types of traffic are allowed to cross new or rehabbed structures. The purpose of the initial inspection is to take a “snapshot” of the bridge to capture its brand-new or rehabbed condition and identify the parts that may need monitoring in the future for maintenance purposes.

Routine bridge inspection

The most common type of bridge inspection is a routine one. This type of inspection is performed to determine the bridge’s current condition and to identify areas that need repair and maintenance work or that could be at risk for failure. The United States Department of Transportation recommends performing routine inspections every two years. Newly built or rehabbed bridges may be inspected less often and those in poor condition more frequently.

In-depth bridge inspection

In-depth inspections are usually conducted by two or more licensed and highly experienced bridge inspectors. They check on the structure above and below the deck and depending on the bridge location, underwater. They often use special equipment like lifts and drones to look into hard-to-reach sections of complex bridges. 

The goal of in-depth inspections is to find structural issues (cracks, missing components, etc.), evidence of deterioration (worn concrete, visible rust stains, etc.), and damage that may lead to a partial or complete failure. In-depth inspections occur when routine ones aren’t enough to identify complex problems.

Emergency bridge inspection

Emergency inspections are often referred to as damage inspections. They take place right after a natural calamity (earthquake, wind event, etc.), extreme accident (truck fire, boat strike, etc.), terrorist attack, or human error that could negatively affect the functionality and structural integrity of a bridge. Bridges undergoing emergency inspections are usually closed to everyone but the inspection team to keep people safe.

Special inspection

Special inspections occur when there is a known or suspected deficiency that needs ongoing monitoring while a bridge is awaiting repairs.

Why bridge inspections are more effective with digital checklists

When civil engineers and other professionals perform bridge inspections, they typically take notes and record their findings and recommendations on a paper checklist. It’s surprising that in this digital age, many professionals prefer to use paper and pen to keep records.

The use of paper is being reduced with the emergence of digital checklists. As more and more professional bridge inspectors try them out, they’re experiencing the benefits of using them and becoming converts.

Digital checklists streamline the bridge inspection process and make record-keeping more straightforward and accurate.

Here are a few reasons that bridge inspections are better with digital checklists:

  • Automatic and centralized record-keeping. Inspections done with paper checklists require that data be entered by hand into a database after the inspection is over. This is highly inefficient and can lead to errors. Digital checklists can automatically save and upload inspection data onto a central database for efficient and accurate documentation with easy access.
  • Secure file storage. Paper documents are often lost, damaged, and stolen. It’s also relatively easy for unauthorized people to get access to them. Digital inspection records are far more permanent and secure. 
  • Easy to customize. Routine bridge inspections are never “routine.” Each has its nuances. When it comes to emergency and special inspections, every aspect is unique. Electronic bridge inspection forms are easy to customize depending on project needs. It’s also simple to distribute customized documents to an entire inspection team. Customized forms result in more complete inspections and thorough record-keeping, which is particularly critical for at-risk bridges.
  • Better and easier records. In most cases, bridge inspectors have to take pictures of structural elements and signs of deterioration to document the decline in the condition of the structure. When inspectors work with a paper checklist, they have to use a camera or smartphone and eventually match the images with the information on paper. A digital bridge inspection checklist makes it possible for bridge inspectors to take photos through the app during the inspection. This results in more thorough inspection reports completed in less time.

Digital bridge inspection checklist software: The bottom line

Bridge inspectors have started to leverage technology to improve the way that they conduct inspections. The benefits include:

    • Faster, simpler, and more efficient inspections. According to the National Bridge Inspection Standards, there are more than 600,000 bridges across the United States. Almost 40%are 50 or more years old, which means they have exceeded their useful lives. Do the math, and you’ll find there are many bridges that need frequent inspections and not enough professionals to handle the work. Technology makes it possible to do more and better bridge inspections with fewer people.
  • Quicker reporting and better communications. Automated inspection software enables professionals to complete reports, make recommendations, and share them with stakeholders faster and more effectively. During these challenging times for bridges, fast and accurate communications about inspections are critical.
  • Better record keeping. Bridge inspectors and technicians in the field don’t have to worry about record-keeping. The bridge inspection software handles it through cloud storage. Having data stored in the cloud makes it simpler to protect critical bridge information and help the next generation of bridge inspectors maintain the structural integrity of viaducts, which are currently being designed to last centuries rather than decades.
  • Better data management. Inspection software makes it easier to transform data into meaningful information and actionable insights. Inspectors and engineers no longer need to sort through paperwork and old files to find information about a bridge inspection from years ago. Information is at their fingertips any place, any time.

If you’re using paper for bridge inspections, it’s time to adopt digital checklists. Not only will it make your work faster and more efficient, but you’ll also be better at what you do.