Demolition Safety: 4 Ways to Avoid Injuries During the Most Dangerous Phase of Your Project

Putting up a structure is dangerous work. Taking one down can be just as dangerous.

Putting up a structure is dangerous work. Taking one down can be just as dangerous.

OSHA’s famous “Fatal 4” — falls, struck-by-object accidents, electrocutions and caught-in/between accidents — relate to all phases on construction, including demolition. In 2015 a worker suffered a skull fracture when he fell off a 10-foot ladder while demolishing drywall. And every year, demolition workers get injured or crushed when a wall or roof collapses unexpectedly.

So how can you and your crew stay safer and avoid not only the Fatal 4 but other jobsite calamities and near misses?

Brace, shore and guard

OSHA’s Demolition Safety Tips include plenty of common-sense advice: Wear PPE, brace or shore up the walls and floors of damaged structures employees must enter, shut off all utilities and service, etc. But they also highlight some important precautions that might get overlooked, like guarding wall openings to a height of 42 inches and keeping floor openings used for disposal to no more than 25 percent of the total floor area.

Communicate and educate

Use your morning safety meetings to reinforce safety measures à propos of that day’s work.  

Managers should not assume, for example, that workers know what to do when working with an excavator operator. The new guy may need to be told never to stand in the swing-radius of the machine or behind the operator. And when using hand signals or approaching the operation area, make eye contact with the operator to be certain he sees you.

Supervisors should rely on both their experience and continuing education. Online safety courses and local classes, even if they serve only as reminders of the basics, help protect the business and keep people working.

Prepare properly

Oddly, while dangers from lead paint to live wires lurk on every job site, demolition safety appears to be under-considered in many companies. By far the most frequently cited OSHA demolition standard is 1926.850(a), “Preparatory operations.”  Half of those “Preparatory operations” citations are for failing to meet pre-demolition engineering survey requirements.

A survey can help uncover deviations from the original design, modifications that altered the design, materials hidden within structural members and damaged materials.

“A preconstruction site survey is part of my job,” said project manager Jeff Kirby. “It’s not code-required for much of our work, yet it’s critical to protecting people from injury and our company from accusations of damage.

“It’s a best-chance for discovering MacGyvered hacks along with asbestos, lead and other hazards, like the circuit breaker I located on a walk-through. It was tie-wired in the ‘on’ position. An electrician traced the short (it was in a light fixture — 1 of 20 on that circuit). Demo was delayed three days, but I found it before anyone got hurt, which is the best way to avoid injury — before it happens.”

Use safety equipment

A site survey can help prevent a potentially fatal unplanned collapse. But it's not just giant structural failures that cause injury during demolition. Even small oversights and mistakes can wreak havoc.

“A wrench may be harmless in a tool pouch, but if it falls 50 feet, that's another matter,” said Nate Bohmbach, associate product director at work gear manufacturer Ergodyne. “Gearing up employees with tool lanyards and fall protection systems protects the worker at height and whoever/whatever is below.”

Determine what PPE is required, and make sure all workers use it (and inspect it first). It can be the difference between a productive day and a day when you have to make a trip to the ER or make a phone call no manager, co-worker or friend ever wants to make.

Mark Clement ( is a tool expert, licensed contractor, author and tradeshow and live event presenter.

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