Demolition contractors have a special responsibility within the construction industry. They must knock down, blow up, or otherwise disassemble a variety of structures — steel, concrete, and wood — as safely as possible. The work is inherently dangerous, particularly if the contractor or members of the demolition crew don’t follow regulations and best practices.
Although many demolition contractors operate safely and with detailed planning, some smaller operators may not be clear about safe demolition operations, says Stephen Wiltshire, the safety director at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) in Washington, DC. Here’s how to improve safety practices at your own company.
Start With an Engineered Plan
Before beginning a demolition project, you should have an engineered demolition plan drawn up. This detailed guidance document lets all the project stakeholders know how the building or structure will be taken apart, much like this sample slab demolition plan written for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
The plan can include what demolition equipment will be required, whether the crew will have to use hand demolition tools like chisels or pry bars, and in what order each phase of the teardown will be executed.
“[Demolition] looks easy, but they built [the building] with plans and need to take it down with plans,” Wiltshire said. “That’s what the law says.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) refers to demolition as “construction in reverse” and requires an engineering survey before any demolition project begins. The engineering survey must be conducted by a competent person and should:
1. Determine if there are any structural deficiencies in framing, walls, or floors
2. Decide if there is a potential for collapse
3. Maintain a written record of the survey
After the survey is complete, the OSHA demolition standard mandates that:
— Walls and floors of damaged structures are braced
— Utilities be located and shut down or relocated
— Hazardous substances or materials be removed
— Floor openings, other than material drops, be covered
— Demolition starts at the top and moves down floor by floor
Conduct a Job Safety Analysis
After the engineered plan is complete, the next step is to conduct a job safety analysis (JSA). Whereas the engineered plan might specify, for example, which beams to remove in what order, the JSA determines whether there are other health or physical issues associated with that task, like the risk of falls or exposure to lead, asbestos, or silica. “[The JSA] analyzes every activity, step by step,” explains Wiltshire.
OSHA provides a free guide to performing a JSA, which can be broken down into three simple steps:
1. Isolating the activity or task
2. Recognizing the associated hazard or hazards
3. Identifying how to control or mitigate the hazard
If a demolition contractor takes the time to secure an engineered plan and routinely performs JSAs, it’s a good indication that the company is thoughtful in its processes and is taking the time to do other things right as well, including adequately training its personnel.
The ABC offers training programs of all kinds for contractors and their employees but acknowledges that for the most part, the bulk of employee training happens on the job. In that case, he said, employers need to make sure the appropriate rules are in place and that everyone on the job is working safely. An on-site safety professional or foreman can help ensure that employers are using proper practices.
Use Proper Demolition Tools
Every demo pro should have a few demolition hand tools in his or her arsenal. The wrecker bar’s J-shape gives the user enough leverage to pry apart framing and features a chiseled end and a “V” gap for pulling nails. The Wonder Bar can pull nails and pry like the wrecker bar, as well as scrape and lift certain salvageable or replacement materials back into place. Then there’s the sledgehammer, which can, with enough muscle, demolish most structures, including concrete.
Keep in mind that using the right demolition tools for the job is part of proper safety practices. Site workers should always use tools for their designated purposes and wear the regulated safety gear.
Demolition work, by its very nature, can be dangerous. However, contractors can operate without accident or injury if they use the right tools and take the appropriate steps to ensure the work is carried out according to the rules set out by OSHA, local building officials, and industry best practices.
Kim Slowey spent more than 25 years in the construction industry and is a Florida certified general contractor. She is now also a journalist and writer, focusing on commercial and residential construction and real estate for publications like Construction Dive and Forbes. Kim also writes for The Home Depot, whose website has a wide selection of the kinds of hand tools Kim describes in this article.