Demolition work is an important aspect of construction, building restoration, infrastructure repair, maritime design, and related industries. However, demolishing buildings and other structures can expose workers to a variety of hazards that may lead to short- and long-term health effects. Protecting yourself and your workforce from these hazards is critical to your team's safety and wellbeing. In this article, we'll discuss what demolition work entails, what demolition hazards and controls you should be aware of, and what sorts of demolition safety strategies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), can help protect workers in the field.
Demolition Work in Action: Industry Examples
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), demolition work, often called "construction in reverse," includes the "dismantling, razing, destroying or wrecking of any building or structure or any part thereof." Typical demolition tasks and activities can include:
- Manual demolition
- Mechanical demolition
- Selective demolition via the use of explosives
- Removal of materials, including flooring, walls, chimneys, and steel
- Preparatory and storage operations
At virtually any job site, demolition requires a multidisciplinary workforce including professionals and specialists from numerous fields, including construction, electrical, hazmat, and waste management. For this reason, each person involved in the demolition process—no matter what their task or area of expertise is—must be thoroughly trained on demolition safety and control measures to reduce the risk of bodily harm, to self or others.
Common Health and Physical Hazards Present with Demolition Work
Any demolition process exposes workers to a continually changing environment that may present a variety of health and physical hazards. Such hazards must be anticipated and mitigated in order to promote worker safety. As noted by OSHA, some of the most common hazards you'll need to look out for at your demolition site include:
- Structural instabilities and unknown strengths or weaknesses of construction materials
- Approved (or unapproved) modifications to structural designs
- Improper ladder or scaffolding use
- Falling debris
- General heavy equipment operations
- Power and hand tool use
- Generator use
- Live electrical equipment (e.g., wiring, cutting) and related utilities
- Welding, cutting, and burning
- Confined spaces
- Heat and cold stress
- Animal or insect bites
- Exposure to poisonous plants
- Chemical and material storage, use, and exposure—including the discovery of unknown or unexpected chemicals
Taking Action: Preventing Demolition-Related Injuries and Illnesses
OSHA offers a range of safety measures and precautions that, when used properly, can prevent demolition-related injuries and illnesses. Starting from a big picture view, the key elements to any demolition safety practice is to "plan, provide, and train":
Plan ahead by conducting thorough assessments of the work site, paying close attention to the condition of the structure to be demolished. Engineering surveys should assess and document framing, floors, and walls of the structure, as well as adjacent structures. Evaluate the possibility of an unplanned building or structure collapse, which is the most frequent type of fatality-causing accident in demolition work, according to a recent review published in Civil Engineering and Architecture.
Ensure that walls and floors are regularly shored and braced as needed. A competent individual or select group of individuals should be tasked with inspecting work areas on an ongoing basis to detect and address potential hazards. OSHA also recommends planning the demolition process in an appropriate sequence, e.g., taking a "top down" approach to demolition by working with the uppermost floors first.
Anticipate what sort of chemical or compound hazards workers may be exposed to and provide the correct PPE.
Lastly, plan ahead to ensure that any falling debris, stored material, and equipment does not exceed the carrying capacity of the floor or structure at any stage of the demo process.
Provide the correct equipment and protection materials. Under the auspices of OSHA, it's up to the employer not only to provide appropriate PPE for workers, but to ensure that all workers are properly educated on how to fit, don, doff, store, and maintain PPE.
Employees should be trained in the proper identification and mitigation of demolition workplace hazards. They should be well-trained in how to use equipment (as well as PPE), and understand what to do in the event of an accident.
Recommended PPE For Common Demolition Hazards
Because chemical exposure and handling is such a critical hazard to be aware of at any demolition site, let's take a moment to review some specific PPE requirements for some common chemicals your team may come across:
- Silica: silica is a mineral found in building materials like brick, tile, mortar, and concrete. Demolition processes like mixing concrete, sandblasting, and cutting concrete can easily produce small airborne silica particles, which can cause irreversible lung damage if inhaled. Respirators with N, R, or P95 filters must be used "[a]t a minimum," according to OSHA, although N, R, or P100 filters may be required for additional protection.
- Dust, dirt, silt: so-called "nuisance dusts" can lead to lung and eye irritation, and can be appropriately protected against with N, R, or P95 respirators that feature full-face protection or half-face with safety goggles.
PPE for Silica, Dust, Dirt, and other Fine Particles:
- Mold: mold exposure is common in demolition and can lead to health issues like eye and lung irritation, or even neurological issues and death in more severe, protracted cases. The specific PPE your team will need for mold remediation depends on several factors, including worksite size and type of mold present. Generally, workers should be fitted with half or full-face respirators containing N, R, or P100 filters, disposable coveralls, non-vented goggles, and long gloves. Shoe covers may also be necessary when working with mold in areas greater than 100 square feet.
- Asbestos: asbestos is another naturally occurring mineral that has been linked to chronic lung disease and cancer, including mesothelioma. Structures built prior to 1980 are the most likely to contain Asbestos Containing Materials (ACM). Health risks from asbestos typically arise from accidental inhalation or ingestion. If removal of ACM is deemed necessary for a demolition project, then removal must be performed by personnel specifically trained to do so. Respirators are a must. In addition, disposable coveralls and shoe coverings are necessary to avoid the risk of bringing asbestos off the worksite.
- Lead: lead is a naturally occurring element linked to brain and kidney damage, cancer, lung irritation (if inhaled), anemia, learning difficulties, and even death in large exposures. Because lead can cross into the placenta, pregnant women who are exposed to lead may also expose their unborn children to lead, too. PPE required for handling of lead and lead-based materials include chemical safety goggles, gloves, aprons, and boots, as well as half- or full-face respirators with N, R, or P100 filters.
PPE for Mold, Asbestos, and Lead:
- Combustibles: combustibles include particulate solids that pose a flash-fire or explosion hazard. You'll commonly find combustibles from woods, plastics, metals, and even some foods, mechanical sparks, frictional heat, open flames, electric arcs, or slag from welding and flame cutting. PPE for working with combustibles should be in compliance with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), including flame‐resistant garments. These garments must meet standards for flame resistance, heat transfer performance, thermal stability, and heat resistance, even through multiple laundering. Disposable flame-resistant garments are also a viable and often cost-effective option.
PPE for Flames and Combustibles:
For all the above chemicals and particulates, employers should ensure that gloves worn by workers provide adequate chemical protection while still preserving appropriate grip and dexterity. Shoes must also be close-toed and sturdy to reduce the risk of slips and falls.
What is The OSHA Standard 29 CFR Part 1926?
One of the best ways to ensure your workforce is in compliance with demolition safety standards is to reference the OSHA Standard 29 CFR Part 1926. This comprehensive document provides helpful information regarding safety and health regulations for construction and demolition projects.
Demolition is an essential component to building and infrastructure repair and restoration. However, due to the nature of demolition work, any number of hazards can be present during typical job duties. Unless properly anticipated and addressed, these hazards can lead to short-term or long-term injury and illness, or even death in some cases.
Employers can look to OSHA and other regulatory entities to ensure that they are adequately planning for demolition projects, providing all personnel with the appropriate PPE, and training all employees in the proper use of PPE, equipment, and materials. PPE should be specific and appropriate to the task at hand and be able to protect against any chemicals that employees may come across, including lead, asbestos, silica, dust, and mold. Choosing high quality, durable, and comfortable PPE will promote compliance and proper use. When cross-contamination is a serious concern, disposable PPE can be an ideal solution for protecting individuals both on and off the job site.
Do you need help covering your workforce's demolition safety needs? Our expert team at International Enviroguard can provide guidance on demolition PPE to ensure you remain OSHA-compliant and keep the health and safety of your entire team top of mind.