By: Thomas H. Welby Thomas H. Welby Published: January 2007

Safety Policy: Under-Appreciated Dangers in Demolition Operations

Demolition activities present an unexpectedly complicated array of professional issues. Practical success and OSHA compliance require careful (and documented) advance planning. Even with the best planning, demolition is fraught with unexpected and often nasty surprises. These can result, for example, from deviations from design documents during construction; approved, unapproved or undocumented modifications; materials hidden within structural members, and unknown weaknesses or defects in materials.

Especially on smaller projects, one sees lots of needless risks taken, and lots of inadequately-trained workers. Accidents in demolition operations (notably, falls and injuries resulting from structures collapsing unexpectedly) are common, and too often serious or fatal.

OSHA regulations under Subpart T of the construction standards (Section 1926 in the Code of Federal Regulations) are deceptively brief. However, while obviously Subpart T needs to be reviewed and complied with, there are more than a dozen additional areas of the OSHA regulations that are likely to come into play on a typical demolition job.

Even if your company is a specialty demolition contractor, or regularly engages directly in demolition work, it’s a fairly safe bet that your personnel could stand to know more about demolition safety (or could use a refresher course). Given the impossibility of more than “scratching the surface” in this article, I’d suggest that you consider enrolling key personnel in one of the many useful courses (many of them OSHA-approved) which address topics relating to demolition safety.

If you work in a trade that doesn’t involve performing demolition, or you sub out demolition to specialists, you still should be knowledgeable about demolition safety. Keep in mind OSHA’s “multi-employer doctrine,” and laws that may impose liability for personal injury or wrongful death, even where you had no direct authority over demolition operations.

As a further recommendation, I’d suggest you speak with your safety director or safety consultant to review whether — like most contractors — your written safety plan needs more “beef” on demolition-related topics, and those topics merit more frequent and in-depth attention via training seminars and toolbox meetings.

The following are just some of the safety topics which — although not specific to demolition operations — require attention to carry out demolition operations safely, comply with OSHA, and improve your written policies and training programs:

  • Asbestos;
  • Confined spaces;
  • Fall protection;
  • Lead exposure;
  • Personal Protective Equipment ;
  • Respiratory protection;
  • Noise and hearing conservation;
  • Scaffolding;
  • Trenching and excavations;
  • Welding, cutting and brazing.

Many basic resources regarding demolition safety are readily found online. Subpart T (29 C.F.R. Sections 1926.850 through 1926.860) is an obvious place to start, but those regulations are only a small part of what you ought to know.

Virtually all local building departments require demolition permits, with associated paperwork being more or less burdensome. These non-OSHA requirements are in large part safety-related, and should not only be complied with, but properly documented.

Permit requirements generally overlap the “Preparatory Operations” described in OSHA, 29 C.F.R. § 1926.850. Typically, these will include but not be limited to the following:

  • Checking adjoining structures to determine the condition of the framing, floors and walls, and to assess the risk of unplanned collapse;
  • Shoring and bracing (if workers will need to work within the structure to be demolished) especially if the latter has been damaged by fire, flood, explosion, etc.;
  • Notification to utility companies, and the shutoff or capping of electric, gas, water, steam, sewer and other service lines;
  • Identifying and eliminating potential hazards from the storage or prior use of flammable or hazardous chemicals, gases, explosives, etc.;
  • Abating hazards from glass fragmentation;
  • Covering floor openings that will not be used as material drops;
  • If applicable, the enclosing of areas onto which materials are to be dropped through holes in the floor without the use of chutes, and posting warning signs;
  • Protecting wall openings, where employees could fall through them;
  • Erecting needed sidewalk sheds and/or canopies;
  • Obtaining all necessary inspections, permits, and insurance required by local law);
  • Complying with additional local requirements (asbestos certificates, rodent control, fencing, notices to nearby property owners, posting signs, etc.)

A case illustrating several issues mentioned above is Secretary v. Fabi Construction Co., Inc. (1996). In that case, a subcontractor was to demolish manually a temporary “knockout panel,” made of reinforced concrete, which covered a shaft in a 10-story parking garage, atop which a 21-story hotel was to be built in Atlantic City.

As installed, the knockout panels varied from floor to floor. On the ground floor, the panels were flush to the slab on grade, and rested on 4” wide ledges on all sides, with a metal deck below. On the second floor, the knockout panels rested on parapet walls, were doweled into the wall on one side, and had a metal deck below. On the roof, however, the panels were supported on two sides only, and there was no metal deck below them.

The demolition procedure for the knockout panels had workers standing on the edge of the panels and, using a jackhammer, making pilot holes, to determine the location of the supporting lip or ledge, expose the rebar, determine how far apart the rebar was, and to see if the individual panel was doweled (and if so, where the rods tied into the concrete around the panel).

The accident occurred as two laborers were demolishing one of the five-ton panels on the garage roof. One laborer made a 1’ x 2’ pilot hole and, seeing no movement in the rebar when he jackhammered around it, assumed that the rebar was tied into the adjoining wall. He proceeded to expand the hole, to determine where the next rod was. Stress cracks up to 5’ long were observed, but the second laborer, Kane, asked the laborer wielding the jackhammer, Caucci, to remove a little more concrete, to confirm that the rods were in fact tied in. As Caucci complied with Kane’s request, the entire slab, with both men standing on it, fell down the open shaft. Kane luckily seized onto a knee-wall on the floor below and survived. Caucci plunged to his death.

OSHA hit the employer with a number of “serious” violations in connection with this fatality. Significantly, for purposes of our immediate focus, the employer’s more-or-less conscientious written safety program and fall-protection training were held to be noncompliant with OSHA. The employer’s “plain vanilla” written program contained no section that specifically addressed demolition hazards. A fall protection video had been shown to some, but by no means all, of the subcontractor’s employees, but the subjects covered (e.g., perimeter protection, floor openings, PPE) failed to address site-specific (or demolition-specific) hazards. The latter were not adequately addressed in toolbox meetings.

The employer in Fabi Construction was found to have violated 29 C.F.R. § 1926.501(a)(2) (not a Subpart T regulation), by failing to determine that the walking/working surfaces on which the employees were required to work had sufficient strength and structural integrity to support them. As two engineers testified at the trial, the drilling of pilot holes (with jackhammers!) destroyed the integrity of the knockout panels. Once you start cutting pieces off the panel, the expert witnesses testified, the panel loses strength and if you remove either rebar or concrete, the slab loses its character as a reinforced concrete slab.

If you perform demolition, or your employees typically follow on sufficiently early that demolition may still be underway, you want to be sure that you (or the demolition sub) comply with an critical additional requirement discussed in Fabi Construction: the preparation of a written engineering survey, by a competent person, of the structure to determine the condition of the framing, floors, and walls, and the possibility of unplanned collapse of any portion of the structure (or any adjacent structure, where employees may be exposed). See § 29 C.F.R. § 1926.850(a). If you are not the entity responsible to prepare such a survey, obtain from the responsible contractor, and keep in your files, a copy.

Although the citation under this standard was vacated in Fabi Construction, I would hesitate to predict that, today, a dozen years later, the Commission would find sufficient the review that was made in that case, which consisted largely of inspections of the structure (carried out, however, by a highly-experienced engineer) plus addressing what were in large part cost-estimation issues, such as manpower and equipment needs.

Over and above the “preparatory operations” summarized above, Section V, Chapter 1 of OSHA’s Technical Manual (available on OSHA’s website) proposes further subjects you should consider including in your pre-demolition planning and written engineering survey. Some of those topics are as follows:

  • A schedule of safety equipment needs (e.g., respirators, lifelines, warning signs, safety nets, face and eye protection, hearing protection);
  • A comprehensive plan (if applicable) for confined space entry;
  • In addition to identifying and shutting off or limiting utility services, informing all workers of the locations of existing and relocated utility services;
  • Advance provision for the contingency of having to transport a seriously-injured worker to receive medical care. Identify the closest facility, provide in advance of the need for transportation (jobsite gurneys, a pre-identified ambulance service); have information such as phone numbers and the quickest route to the hospital, in the hands of supervisory personnel, etc.;
  • Ensuring that a properly-stocked first-aid kit is onsite and, if possible (especially if no medical facilities are close by) have a person with a first aid training certificate from the Red Cross, U.S.
  • Bureau of Mines, or equivalent onsite;
  • A detailed fire plan, containing (among other things) prevention in respect of electrical wiring, internal combustion exhausts, the use and storage of flammable materials, heating devices, fire hydrants, and smoking. Other items to include are unobstructed exists, roadways kept clear of equipment, rubbish, etc., unobstructed hydrants (with sufficient water pressure assured), alarms and communications equipment, and the posting of alarm codes and reporting instructions.
  • Additional measures, described in the Technical Manual, where a chimney, stack, silo or cooling tower is to be demolished.

Fabi Construction involved employees of an experienced subcontractor, on a significant project, jackhammering underfoot, while uncertain of what (if anything) supported the concrete slab on which they were standing, 10 stories aloft. That even able and conscientious people sometimes do such things is a sobering reminder never to take safety in demolition operations for granted.

Thomas H. Welby is a licensed professional engineer, as well as an attorney and managing partner of Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP, a construction law firm with its main office in White Plains. Articles in this series are for general guidance only, and should not be relied upon as providing all information necessary for compliance with OSHA and other legal requirements.

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