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Tips for Safe Demolition

Demolition involves many of the hazards associated with construction, but dismantling a building presents additional risks because of unknown factors. These uncertain elements could include undisclosed modifications to the original design, toxic materials concealed within structural members or dangers created by the wrecking methods used.

Often, however, contractors fail to take demolition seriously because they think the work will be straightforward and easy compared to construction. The perils of a demolition job ultimately can be mitigated through planning properly, providing the right protection and equipment, and training all employees about the hazards and correct procedures.

Assess limitations and plan ahead

An engineering survey of the structure before any demolition determines the condition of the framing, floors, ceilings and walls. The failure to conduct this investigation, which is required by both state and federal law, represented the most commonly cited demolition standard from 2009 to 2013, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“One of the problems is people have this attitude that it’s just demolition and anybody can do it,” says Chris Godek, owner of New England Yankee Construction in Milford, Connecticut. “There’s a lot that goes into the planning part of most demolition projects that people don’t know about and people don’t see.”

The survey not only documents the current state of the building, but it also examines the possibility of an unplanned collapse. Contractors should check adjacent structures where employees or potential bystanders might be exposed; note the location of nearby utilities and arrange for them to be shut off, capped or relocated; and establish fire prevention and evacuation strategies.

“You have to treat it like an electrician would when he has to go into a damaged service box,” says Richard Diven, managing partner of R.J. Diven Consulting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “They take every single precaution to make sure they’re not going to get fried in the process.”

OSHA prescribes guidelines for the survey on its website, but individual contractors are wise to develop their own forms or checklists to ensure completion. Once the parameters have been satisfied, contractors must be able to present evidence in writing that they met the standards necessary for compliance.

“Everything needs to be identified and checked on to make sure that you don’t walk into any unknowns,” says Jeff Kroeker, owner of Kroeker Inc., in Fresno, California. “The engineering survey is basically to set a stage of what is there and how we are going to deal with it.”

Identify risks and ensure protection

The recognition of hazardous materials such as lead or asbestos constitutes a significant step in planning for a demolition. Contractors should hire a certified third party to check the premises for potentially dangerous substances and arrange for the removal of those items before any demolition work begins.

“If they’re totally unprepared and just keep going [after discovering hazardous material], they can get themselves into trouble,” Diven says. “Older buildings in particular, almost every one of them has asbestos somewhere.”

An assessment of health hazards not only helps contractors eliminate harmful matter, but it also informs them about the appropriate safety equipment. Demolition employers must determine which personal protective equipment will be required for a job, including hard hats, gloves, safety glasses, respirators and hearing protection.

“You make sure that the employees are aware of what they need to do and how they need to protect themselves and the public,” Diven says. “You can’t just go down to the corner and pick up a couple of folks and bring them out to your job and say, ‘Wreck that.’”

In addition to providing the right gear, employers must train all workers on the selection, use, fitting, inspection, maintenance and storage of personal protective equipment. Safety precautions extend beyond the equipment and apply to other OSHA standards such as fall protection and trip hazards.

“There are a lot of things that people have to prepare for, and we try to prepare our workers for that by taking them through orientations, taking them through training and trying to mentor them,” says Mike Gunlund, safety director for Kroeker Inc. “We don’t let our workforce perform any work on the project without the proper training.”

Check regularly and train often

Convening multiple safety meetings throughout the day as site conditions change enables contractors to update employee awareness and evaluate their understanding. Kroeker Inc., even has workers sign an acknowledgement following each meeting to make sure they can identify their scope of work, the hazards associated with it and the precautions they need to take.   

“Every day the site changes, and if we don’t hold a safety meeting every day to identify all the new hazards that are on the job, then we haven’t done our job for the workers in maintaining their safety,” Gunlund says. 

“We identify all the tasks that we’re going to be doing, we try to identify all the hazards that might be associated with that task, and how to mitigate the hazard. We encourage the workers to help us identify those hazards,” he adds.

If the work that particular day will involve sandblasting, for example, employees might have to wear a face shield to protect against flying particles or even a respirator to avoid breathing in silica dust. Applying water when cutting the material would further control the dust at its source. But no matter the precaution, the end goal remains the same.

“When we see somebody out there that has an accident or fatality, it affects the whole demolition community,” Gunlund says.

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