Follow These Recommendations for Handling Hazardous Materials

By D. Jeffrey Craven

Originally Published in the December 2012/January 2013 Edition of Harwood Floors Magazine.

Hazardous materials are aplenty on the wood flooring job site. Some of them, like asbestos, lead, mold and PCBs, may already be present on a job site when doing remodeling work. Others, like VOCs, isocyanates and other potential irritants, can be in the products being installed or used, and these can be harmful to those with particular susceptibility, like asthmatics. There are many regulations in effect across the U.S. under all matter of jurisdictions (EPA, OSHA, states and localities), so it’s difficult to provide a comprehensive overview of one’s responsibilities as a flooring contractor when faced with situations involving hazardous materials, but here is an introductory Q&A on the most common questions I hear about them:

Q: What should I do if I suspect or discover hazardous materials at a job site?

A: Stop work immediately. Removing and disposing of any hazardous material is fraught with health and environmental issues and regulations. Even something as seemingly benign as mold can create health risks, since mold spores can become airborne when exposed.

Depending on the nature of the hazard, you may be able to proceed if you can provide reasonable protection to the property, your workers and the environment. But, know that removal and disposal of hazardous materials may require special licensing. Likewise, the EPA has established practices for demolition of asbestos-containing materials, and in 2010 it enacted the Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) rule for safely remodeling lead-containing materials (e.g., old wood floor finish, and baseboard paint). If you do not have the license, training and specialized knowledge, you should not proceed. Instead, put the owner on notice so the owner can hire someone to handle any testing and remediation.

Also, OSHA has issued guidelines for proper protection of workers and others, and it also regulates exposure limitations and procedures for safety management that govern things like exposure to asbestos (see the OSHA document 29 CFR 1910.1001 for asbestos regulations, for example). Failure to comply with EPA, OSHA and other laws and statutes could expose you to heavy fines, employee claims or possibly having your job shut down.

Further, if prior to starting the job you suspect that the existing flooring may contain or may cover hazardous material, you should have the owner test the flooring and substrate prior to starting work. Not only does putting the owner on notice demonstrate your professionalism, it also could save you from having to stop in the middle of a job, leaving the homeowner temporarily homeless and potentially leaving you exposed for the unpaid labor and materials you are waiting to install.

Q: Do I need to carry Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for every product in my truck?

A: Yes, for any product that requires an MSDS or where the manufacturer otherwise provides one. An MSDS provides warnings for the handling of potentially hazardous materials, as well as what to do in emergency situations such as fires. MSDS are readily available—there are websites dedicated to searching for them—and they must be kept and disseminated to workers and others who may be present on the job site. A copy of the MSDS or Product Safety Data Sheet (PSDS) with the after-care instructions should also be provided to the homeowner.

Q: Am I required to use a respirator if the MSDS sheet recommends it?

A: Yes. While common sense dictates that a contractor should follow any recommendations from a manufacturer, for hazardous materials close adherence to MSDS guidelines can be potentially life-saving. Where the MSDS only gives a recommendation, it may be that the potential health risks of a given chemical aren’t conclusively established. Still, for chemicals like PCBs, the risk of cancer or other health problems may only develop after long-term exposure. As a contractor you have a much greater exposure risk than does the owner. More importantly, if you fail to follow an MSDS recommendation, the manufacturer, its insurer, or your insurer may refuse to provide coverage for a claim made for an injury resulting from inhaling the product. Protect your health and wallet by following the MSDS recommendation.

Q: Are there liability issues for exposing occupants to hazardous materials?

A: Yes. If you know or reasonably should know of a hazardous condition and fail to notify the occupant, you may be responsible if they (or their guests) are injured. The owner bears this same risk to you, though the owner is less likely to be aware of a hazardous material.

Q: Can I be liable for making an occupant sick from freshly applied finish?

A: Yes, that is a potential risk. The contractor can protect against that risk by advising the owner/occupant up front of the potential for an adverse reaction to the finish. Providing the MSDS is a good way to accomplish this. To help reduce risk of an adverse reaction, establish guidelines that spell out the minimum amount of time prior to occupancy and how to properly ventilate the property; advise those who are considered at “high risk” of an adverse reaction to stay out of the property for a period of time. Providing a contract disclaimer that the owner/occupant signs and an indemnity clause whereby the owner agrees to protect the contractor from claims by others are also ways to minimize this risk.

Q: How should hazardous materials be addressed in my contracts?

A: At a minimum, your contract with the owner should contain language making the owner responsible to clean up, protect and indemnify you from any hazardous material on the property. You should also have language addressing insurance coverage for claims pertaining to hazardous materials.

Though this article is not an exhaustive list of every possible legal issue associated with hazardous materials, hopefully it has raised your awareness of potential issues to consider and protect against.