Safely Tear Down Structures
Before you tear down a structure, no matter how small, you must have “a plan of attack,” says Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association (NDA), an organization for the demolition industry in the United States and Canada.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a written engineering survey, a complete project plan of how the demolition will be carried out. It includes documentation of the structure’s condition, detailed demolition plans, hazards, equipment, public utility notifications, and required permits and licenses.
OSHA guidelines state that a “competent person” who can recognize hazards in the workplace, and who has demolition experience, must perform the survey. The project estimator or the safety manager is responsible for completing the survey, says Bill Moore, marketing representative and former safety director for Brandenburg Industrial Service Company, a Chicago-based demolition firm.
“The survey is going to answer a lot of questions, like whether the building may be rotting or if there’s a sub-basement underneath the building you didn’t know about,” Taylor says. “You have to know how you’re actually going to tear down the building. You’d be surprised how often someone just starts whacking away at a structure, and then the roof falls on him.”
Find out as much about the overall structural integrity as you can, and note any termite or fire damage. Check that all the utilities—such as gas, electric and water—are disconnected, and locate all underground gas and power lines and cables before you begin work, Taylor says.
Additionally, assess the risks to neighboring buildings. “Demolition is dynamic, and a building might not collapse the way you had planned,” Taylor says. “Make sure you have the proper insurance and the proper demolition permit.”
Potential damage to nearby structures aside, the community could consider your work a nuisance, and you could end up dealing with irate neighbors. “The demolition process is dirty, messy and disruptive, so your neighbors may not be thrilled,” Taylor says. “You need to coordinate efforts with them to mitigate that.”
The proper use and maintenance of equipment is critical for the safety of your workers, so ensure that all equipment is in safe, working order prior to use.
Ensure that all equipment is in safe, working order prior to use, Moore says.
Workers must wear proper personal protection equipment (PPE). Hard hats, work boots, appropriate gloves, high-visibility safety vests and eye protection are minimum requirements when a building or part of a structure is being torn down, Moore says. Long-sleeved clothing and ear protection gear should be worn when appropriate.
For work performed on a roof taller than 16 feet, harnesses must be worn to prevent falls. Always test gear to make sure it’s working before you use it. “One of the most common types of accidents is falls, so you have to protect yourself,” Taylor says. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor lists falls as one of the leading causes of traumatic occupational death.
Improper use of equipment leads to accidents as well, so make sure you are properly training your workers, Moore says. For example, fires can be caused by the improper use of torches. To ensure workers use equipment and conduct themselves safely, Moore’s company holds training sessions in such subjects as torch safety, ladder use and care, rigging, scaffolding, fall protection, process safety and OSHA safety standards.
Even with small demolition jobs, abatement of environmental hazards may be necessary in some situations.
Asbestos, a mineral previously used in insulation and other building materials, is a hazard you may encounter. If you’re demolishing a residential unit, or part of one, then you’re exempt from many asbestos standards except for the OSHA asbestos standards, Taylor says. “It’s a very elaborate part of the industry, and in many states you have to be licensed to deal with asbestos,” he says. “Wear the right dust masks, keep material wet and get educated about it so you’re doing it properly and following the laws.”
You also might deal with lead-based paint and its disposal, Taylor says. Many buildings built before 1978 contain lead-based paint, and there are regulations a contractor must follow before doing anything that would disturb painted surfaces in these structures. Ensure the safety of your workers by following the appropriate steps to prevent lead exposure by following OSHA lead-based paint standards. To learn more, read the Lead-Based Paint Pre-Renovation Education Rule (Lead PRE), a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation affecting contractors and property managers.
Accidents generally occur because of carelessness or miscommunication. “So often, a guy is hit by a 2 x 4 or something is dropped on him from above,” Taylor says. Don’t just assume that common sense can prevent accidents when it comes to the safety of your workers. “You have to have a way to prevent those accidents.”
For Moore, communication is key when it comes to safety. Before the workday begins, Moore’s company holds a safety meeting for the crew. “It’s a rehash and a reminder of safety rules and what the workers could encounter that particular day,” he says. “We’re constantly reminding them about safety.”