Best practices keep demolition's dangers to a minimum.

Ensuring Job Site Awareness

Although the prevailing perception is that the demolition industry by its very nature is a dangerous business, the truth is that the industry’s continued commitment to safety education and best practices is creating a relatively safe industry in which to work. There are no government statistics that isolate the number of fatalities that occur specifically in the demolition industry, but the National Demolition Association (NDA) points to the fact that the number of fatalities in the construction industry overall has remained relatively constant for 20 years while the total volume of construction jobs undertaken in our economy has quadrupled. The obvious conclusion is that great strides have been made in the area of occupational health and safety.

A number of initiatives created by NDA highlight the industry’s continued commitment to safety on the job site. The “Demolition Safety Manual,” viewed by many as the first and last word in demolition safety practices, catalogs the safest ways to perform diverse tasks when demolishing structures. If properly used, the manual will help lead to fewer injuries, safer work sites, and lower worker’s compensation premiums. The reference book translates OSHA regulations into actions for the industry professionals and is meant to be used in connection with each company’s training program in safe work practices. It is an important tool in NDA’s aggressive safety program, which also includes the Hazard Communications Program Manual and the association’s safety DVD series.

Some of the topics covered include:

• Motivating employees

• Equipment safety, including preparation and use of material handling equipment, trucks, and other heavy equipment

• Preparing engineering surveys, utility location, medical services, and fire prevention

• Protective structures, such as signs and lighting

• The safe use of ladders, cranes, and manlifts and the implementation of shoring

• Personal Protective Equipment

• Fall prevention

• Debris removal

• Handling hazardous materials, including asbestos, PCBs, and lead

• Safe use of hand tools, such as pneumatic power tools, abrasive blade tools, and chainsaws

Annual Demolition Safety/Management Summits have been held for 13 years to address topics that affect those in the demolition process. This year’s summit, to be held in October in Atlanta, has been expanded and named the “Demolition Academy.” It will offer specialty certification courses in areas including confined space rescue, aerial lift equipment safety, and fall protection specifically for the demolition industry. Included in the program will be a demolition project site management training course and also a demolition- specific OSHA 10-hour safety training course, which is a prerequisite for a Disaster Site Worker Certification that is likely to be required by OSHA for industry personnel working on any disaster site.

Another initiative is a series of bimonthly “Demolition Safety Talks.” These toolbox safety talks can be used on industry work sites to alert workers to particular hazards they may face. The talks also assist workers with occupational safety and health compliance. These prepackaged toolbox safety meetings are aimed at medium-sized and smaller demolition contractors who may not have the resources to employ a full-time safety director. In these cases, the job usually falls on the shoulders of the project manager, who is a person pulled in many directions during a demolition project. Topics covered in this series include fall protection, scaffold safety, electrical safety, and the operation of heavy machinery.

First Step is Preparation
There are general practices employed by most demolition contractors on a demolition project. The first is preparation.

To avoid potential dangers, the contractor must embark on advance planning. Most contractors perform an engineering survey before employees even touch a building. A team made up of the estimator, safety director, field superintendent, and foreman go through the survey and discuss everything that could possibly happen. Every problem area is examined, and the correct procedure to handle it is devised.

Demolition contractors should inspect the site to be demolished closely to be sure there is no live electric circuit, gas or flammable liquid in a pipe, or some hazardous substance left in a vessel. Experienced contractors know there is often no second chance to get it right.

Safety meetings are essential so every worker knows every potential hazard and how to avoid injuries and fatalities. During the project, safety meetings continue, even on a daily basis, to ensure all safety hazards are communicated and immediately corrected.

Information should be distributed to all job sites as a way to share knowledge and experiences. One major contractor developed a series of cards for employees to carry in their pockets and use to jot down potential safety hazards they might notice in the course of a job. Workers are required to fill these cards out every day so management can be sure they are always on the lookout for hazards.

Workers are told to report every injury to prevent a cut or burn from becoming infected. Because the contractor has the liability for every worker’s well-being, instant communication of injuries is a top priority. Even non-incidents—accidents that could have happened but did not—should be reported.

Using the Right PPE
Personal Protection Equipment plays a leading role in protecting the safety of demolition workers. Working around rubble requires heavy leather boots with thick soles to avoid cuts and punctures. One step better are boots with puncture-resistant soles and steel toes when working around nails and other sharp objects.

To protect the hands, workers can use cloth gloves for most rough work or leather gloves when working around metal or sharp edges. When solvents or chemicals are present, safety directors direct the use of rubber gloves. Moving upward, every worker, without exception, must wear a hard hat on the site. Contractors provide safety glasses, goggles, and faceshields according to the type of hazard the worker faces. Workers are strongly encouraged to report eyewear that is scratched or hard to see through.

The rule of thumb for hearing protection is that if a person must raise his voice to be heard by another only a few feet away, ear plugs or ear muffs are necessary. Safety directors employed by demolition contractors are knowledgeable about the correct respirator to choose based on the hazard present. For example, a dust mask is not rated for asbestos, and a respirator a person would use for asbestos or lead may not work to protect against vapors. In a low-oxygen environment, such as dismantlement inside a confined space such as an industrial tank or vessel, a filter respirator will not supply any additional air. Such conditions demonstrate why the safety director’s supervision and up-to-date knowledge are so essential.

Safety precautions may not always involve the use of PPE but may instead require simply staying in shape and observing rules for lifting and moving heavy objects. Workers should, as a matter of course, incorporate stretching exercises into their preparation for the work day.

Collapse Dangers
One risk present in nearly every demolition is the possibility the structure may collapse unexpectedly. One thing to look out for is to be sure there is no tension built up on a structure’s member that is being cut that may lead to a release. Another potentially dangerous situation is working around large vehicles and equipment where every vantage point may not be visible. It becomes the responsibility of nearby workers to stay clear, which includes not standing under a crane or next to a truck that is being loaded in case materials slip and fall.

Easily understood, agreed-upon hand signals by a person on the ground and someone operating large equipment—communicating everything from danger to where to place a load—can be the difference between safety and injury on a demolition site.

Planning an escape strategy is another way to keep the work site safe. For example, when working on the upper floors of a building being demolished, it is necessary to know several escape routes to take if a dangerous situation should arise. Avoiding “pinch points” is important so that no one gets caught in position near equipment or in a building where there is no exit.

Making common-sense use of barriers also avoids problems on site. Barriers prevent workers from wandering into a work area, getting too close to an edge, or standing under an overhead load. They keep unauthorized people out and are needed to restrict pedestrian traffic.

Conscientious and consistent use of a safety harness is the best way to avoid falls for any height more than 6 feet off the ground without a handrail. When tying off, a structural element must be used that can take the sudden impact of the fall and person’s weight. The best choice is to tie off the lanyard to a strong structure, preferably overhead, so that there is no way the fall will be more than 6 feet.

Throughout a demolition project, workers must keep their work area clean and keep a pathway cleared for the equipment and trucks that need access to the site. As trucks prepare to leave the site and haul demolition debris away, it is necessary for the truck to carry a balanced load that should not be overweight or have any material sticking out. Drivers should always keep in mind the road conditions ahead that may cause a load to shift or present a low-clearance problem.

It is strict adherence to best practices such as these and the demolition industry’s dedication to the awareness and enforcement of workplace safety that has kept it a surprisingly safe business in the global marketplace.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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