Ghosts of a Building's Past

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) reports that more than one-fourth of its 1,600 owned buildings are listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Many of these buildings do not meet minimum code compliance, lack structural integrity and pose hazards to occupants and workers.

Because many historical buildings are deteriorating quickly, urgent remodeling and/or retrofitting is needed to make them safe for occupancy. This process cannot be achieved without first taking a close look at the workers that will be engaged in the construction-related activities.

The most common safety- and health-related issues must be recognized before engaging in construction-related activities in historical buildings. Most require some form of abatement. Before arriving on-site, project management teams must do adequate research. All workers involved in remodeling and/or retrofitting historical buildings must receive some type of specialized training to become familiar with encapsulation, repair or removal of known toxic materials. The workers should be adequately trained and should wear proper personal protective gear that is sufficient for guarding against the identified hazards.

Hazard analysis and risk assessment
First things first, a detailed hazard analysis and risk assessment should be performed based on the scope of work at hand. This step is critical, as it helps identify potentially hazardous conditions that workers could encounter. The hazard analysis provides project management and supervisory personnel vital information needed to engage in hazard-mitigation techniques, such as safe design considerations, engineering controls, material substitution or adoption of administrative controls that help reduce exposure to the identified hazard.

Risk assessment is different than a hazard analysis in the sense that it determines the level of risk that the work force could potentially face when exposed to the identified hazards. Project management and supervisory staff should always consider reducing the risk to levels that are as low as reasonably possible. While there will always be some residual risk when exposed to hazardous conditions, the risk assessment can help project management staff reduce the severity levels.

In construction-related activities in historical buildings, workers can face many safety and health hazards. It is important not to overlook the less obvious hazards. In construction, we tend to focus on obvious safety-related issues, as we always should, but many times, health hazards go unnoticed. Not identifying potential health hazards faced by workers could cost millions of dollars in medical, insurance and litigated costs in the long run.

So what are some of the health hazards that workers could encounter while engaged in electrical construction in historical buildings?

Lead-based health hazards
On April 22, 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule. The rule requires contracting firms performing renovation, repair and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in pre-1978 homes, childcare facilities and schools to be certified by the EPA and that they use certified renovators who are trained by EPA-approved training providers to follow lead-safe work practices. While the rule specifically addresses homes, childcare facilities and schools, many other historical buildings currently have lead-based paint and are not dealt with by this ruling. The rule reveals that lead is known to harm vital body functions, such as neurological development and function; reproduction and physical development; kidney functions; cardiovascular functions; and immune functions. There also is evidence of lead carcinogenicity, primarily determined from animal studies.

If the hazard analysis identifies lead-based health hazards, then it is extremely important to determine what level of abatement activity is expected.

Asbestos-based health hazards
Asbestos exposure increases a worker’s chance of getting two principal types of cancer: cancer of the lung tissue and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the thin membrane that surrounds the lung and other internal organs. The diseases do not develop immediately following exposure to asbestos but appear years later.

Some of the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for decades after the exposure. It is particularly important to check with a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop after asbestos exposure:

• Shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness
• A persistent cough that gets worse over time
• Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs
• Pain or tightening in the chest
• Difficulty swallowing
• Swelling of the neck or face
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Fatigue or anemia

In historical buildings, asbestos material may be present in ceiling and floor tiles, older fire-proofing materials, insulation, and other construction-related materials produced prior to the 1970s. Therefore, careful precautions should be taken to identify and remediate asbestos sources and related exposure before workers perform work in these areas. Proper remediation will help reduce the risk exposure to the asbestos-related health hazards.

Historical building structures can be severely debilitated throughout their life cycle. A closer analysis of historical buildings or structures can reveal many hidden structural hazards. Special precautions should be taken to stabilize these structures before, during and after any remodeling or retrofitting activities take place. Some walls, floors and beams often need to be reinforced to avoid possible collapse. Material storage should be carefully selected as not to exert an excessive load bearing on floors. Holes in floors, where the height is more than 4 feet, should be covered to prevent foreign objects or employees falling through them.

Fall protection
Since historical building structures might lack some structural integrity, fall protection is another key concept in the planning phase. If workers will be required to work at heights in excess of 6 feet, some type of fall protection might be required. Anchor points for fall protection should be carefully selected and identified to ensure they can support a minimum 5,000-lb. load, a challenging task in historical buildings. Project management will need to carefully consult the structural design plans and 29 CFR 1926 Subpart M.

Stairways and ladders
Carrying construction materials and tools from one floor to another can be challenging on stairways and ladders in historical buildings. Some fixed stairways can be spiral with limited room, even for a single person. Other concerns are weak stairways that need to be reinforced prior to worker access.

On many occasions, ladders might need to be constructed on-site to provide improved access to other elevations. While constructing ladders on the job site, acceptable design specifications in 29 CFR 1926 Subpart K—Stairways and Ladders need to be considered and applied.

Historical buildings’ electrical systems often don’t comply with the National Electrical Code (NEC), lack efficiency and, in some cases, pose a significant fire hazard to occupants. Historical buildings that present these types of electrical hazards should be brought up to the NEC’s most recent requirements.

Electrical hazards that workers might face when working in these buildings range from shock, arc flash, arc blast and other secondary hazards that can result in serious electrical injury or even death. For example, an employee working on an old, outdated electrical system could potentially experience an arc flash, which could result in serious burns, falls and multiple fractures.

Water-damaged electrical systems in historical buildings are all too common, especially those structures that have been exposed to hurricanes, floods and firefighting activities. Electrical wiring and equipment exposed to floodwaters can be extremely dangerous if re-energized without replacement or reconditioning. It may not initially be apparent, but the integrity of the electrical system and its components can be severely impaired, jeopardizing the safe electrical wiring system due to contamination and sediment lodged in the equipment along with the corrosion that could have developed.

As a result of all these hazards, NFPA 70E 2012’s Section 110.1 Relationships with Contractors, mandates that host and contractor employers exchange safety-related information that might be encountered during the work being performed. An enabling requirement of this section requires that this meeting be documented.

There are some additional wiring designs and protective measures required by 29 CFR 1926 Subpart K—Electrical that needs to be reviewed and accordingly applied before performing electrical work on historical buildings. Moreover, electrical systems should be properly evaluated prior to performing any work on historical buildings.

In a period where new construction is at its all-time low, historical buildings retrofit or remodeling work is becoming increasingly popular. Before engaging in this type of work, safety and health considerations need to be properly assessed and documented. The items identified in this article are not to be considered all-encompassing, and contractors should consult their safety programs, site-specific requirements and OSHA rules specific to the scope of work. Careful planning could make executing work in historical buildings both safe and profitable.

JOHNSTON is NECA’s executive director of standards and safety. He is former director of education, codes and standards for IAEI; a member of the IBEW; and an active member of the NFPA Electrical Section, Education Section and the UL Electrical Council. Reach him at RIVERA is NECA’s director of safety. Reach him at

About the Author

Jerry Rivera

NECA Director of Safety
Jerry Rivera is a former director of safety for NECA director of safety, chartered with representing the electrical construction industry in subject matters related to health, safety and environment, including regulatory activity, consensus standard...

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