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Identifying & Preventing Hazards During Planning Phases of Construction Projects

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During ASSE’s upcoming Construction Safety Symposium, Rebecca W. Shultz, CSP, CIH, president of Apex Environmental Management Inc., will share her insights on how to identify and prevent health hazards during the planning stages of construction projects. ASSE recently spoke with Shultz about the health and environmental hazards that can present themselves during construction projects and how to address these hazards to avoid major project delays and unexpected costs.

ASSE: What are some health hazard that can be found during demolition, construction or renovation and how do these hazards affect employees, projects and the bottom line? 
Rebecca: In demolition and renovation we are particularly concerned about asbestos, lead-based paint, PCBs and underground storage tanks. All of these issues can effectively halt a project in its tracks and cost major money to correct under time constraints. With newer construction, it’s wise to be aware of the hazardous materials used and how they may apply to new construction. 

ASSE: What are some benefits of looking for these hazards and planning before you start construction? 
Rebecca: We address two sides of construction: renovation/demolition and new construction. From the renovation/demolition standpoint it’s pretty straightforward. If issues are not identified, they can present major health concerns and problems moving forward with the project can be immense. Asbestos, for example, is a common problem. When contractors fail to conduct an asbestos inspection, it can end up delaying the project and causing a huge change in budget. On the new construction side, we want to ensure that we are able to deal with whatever issues may arise. We consider different variables. For example, are contractors using an adhesive that contains methylene chloride? Are they prepared with appropriate respirators and the appropriate ventilation? Are substitutions available? These are the types of things we like to help construction managers look for a plan for ahead of time. Construction deadlines are extraordinarily tight so we never like to jump in in the middle to make changes.

ASSE: What are some concerns associated with finding any of these health hazards mid project? Rebecca: Other than cost and timeline, employees can be exposed to materials and chemicals with both acute and chronic health effects. 

ASSE: What are the costs and timelines of the preplanning that you must account for?
Rebecca: Larger construction projects usually have a large planning phase for the engineering and construction side of things. If given enough notice, the safety and healthplanning can usually get done well before a project is ready to kick off. I would say it usually takes a good month of planning. If you have situations where you have to go in and remove things like tanks and asbestos or lead-based paint, it will take longer depending on how much there is and how long it takes to remove. The cost will also vary depending on when the issues are found and how much removal must be done. If inspections are performed early to allow the appropriate amount of time to resolve the issue it could easily be four or five times cheaper. If issues are discovered mid-project, it can be very expensive and it can bring a job to a crushing halt. 

ASSE: How can employers and OSH professional identify and prevent health hazard during the planning stages of a project?
Rushing to meet client-imposed start dates and hurried timelines are typically the biggest issue in the planning phase that allows items to go unnoticed until mid-project. Luckily, several types of inspections and awareness training for estimators and project supervisors are available.

ASSE: Could you provide any examples on how not planning have led to major project delays, injuries and illnesses?
About 2 years ago, we had been involved in the front end with the planning phases of the demolition and redevelopment of a 14-story high-rise. At the time we told the project managers an inspection was needed to test for asbestos and lead, but then the project got put on hold for nearly a year. When new management came in, it failed to follow up on the inspection. The contractors refused to move forward on the project without a proper inspection, which ended up finding a huge amount of materials that had to be removed from the building. It took nearly 7 months to get all of the asbestos out of the building, stretching their timeline by the better portion of a year and increasing costs dramatically.

It is important to prepare for the fact or at least know that these issues exist and that your timeline could be extended so that you won’t be completely blind-sided. Asbestos, soil and groundwater contamination and lead-based paint are so heavily regulated that there is no room for getting it done quickly. It’s going to be by the book. You cannot rush the process simply because you forgot to plan ahead of time. Similarly, there is a 10-day notification period for asbestos abetment. So you are at a standstill for 10 days when identifying asbestos material just because that is what the regulations say.

Rebecca W. Shultz, CSP, CIH, will deliver her presentation, "Identifying and Preventing Health Hazards During Planning Phases of Projects," on Thursday, Nov. 12, during ASSE's Construction Safety Symposium in New Orleans, LA.