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Building Codes & Safety Regulations

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All contractors and other building professionals are charged with a vitally important task: to create spaces that are not only attractive and functional but, above all, spaces that are safe. To aid craftsmen in this task, regulatory bodies have designed codes and regulations to establish protocols and practices that ensure safety in ever job, both for the craftsmen working to build the space and for the clients who will inhabit the space upon completion.

For a multitude of important reasons, adherence to building codes is crucial for every construction professional. First and foremost is the protection of everyone involved in the project from start to finish. Beyond that, because the codes are legally binding, there are penalties and punishments for professionals who do not follow them. , Failure to adhere to the regulatory laws will cost you money in the long run, so there is a bottom-line incentive to follow the established codes, independent of the need for safety. Consider, even if you are never fined by a regulatory body for non-compliance, it is possible that an employee who is injured or becomes ill from jobsite hazards can hold the company accountable (costing you time and money in court as well as the resulting medical bills). Additionally, clients who find that their building is not up to code will, at the very least, choose another contractor in the future as well as advise others against hiring you, which hurts your business in the long run.

As you can see, there are a lot of incentives to understand and implement the building codes and safety regulations that govern building construction. This article functions as a guide to some of the main areas of regulation you should be aware of and provides some basic information on the various regulatory topics. Still, though some of the codes are federally mandated (and are thus the same nationwide), others vary from location to location. Be sure to study your local ordinances carefully and stay up to date on changes in the safety and regulatory laws in your area as well as any national regulations.

OSHA Dust Control

The OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules on dust control refer specifically to crystalline silica dust. Crystalline silica is a common mineral found naturally in many ordinary building substrates (such as stone, concrete, etc.). It is also one of the basic components from which glass and ceramics are formed. Whenever a silica-containing material is worked, shaped or otherwise processed (such as by sawing, grinding, drilling etc.), it produces a super-fine dust – roughly 100 times smaller than ordinary sand – composed of particles so fine that they can make their way into the human body by inhalation as they swirl in the air.

Angled Sanding BlockThe inhalation of this fine dust, known as “respirable crystalline silica” can lead to a wide variety of serious health problems, especially when exposure is chronic rather than temporary. Possible complications include lung cancer, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and silicosis, a serious and incurable lung disease that leads to disability and even death.

As a result, OSHA regulates environments (such as jobsites) where there is an elevated, ongoing, or otherwise appreciable risk of crystalline silica exposure. The guidelines offer standards for air filtration and ventilation, assessment of silica levels, personal protection (as with a respirator) and more. The guidelines ensure that you and your workers stay healthy and that you don’t lose time or money to employee sick days, work stoppages, and so on.

For more information on the current regulations, check out this summary or the OSHA management protocols.

Fire Rating

One of the most important safety concerns in any building is its resistance to fire.  Fire safety codes have a long history, Boston has had codes governing the construction of chimneys since 1630. Fortunately, drywall has a big advantage when it comes to meeting building fire safety codes.

Being made essentially of stone, drywall is naturally fire-resistant. Apart from the paper backing, it’s very difficult for the material in drywall to burn. Additionally, the moisture contained in the gypsum adds another element in fire suppression: in case of fire, the moisture is released as steam, slowing heat transfer and making it more difficult for fire to spread.

For these reasons, standard drywall is already fire-rated to 30 minutes. Still, some codes, especially in the case of commercial applications, call for longer fire-ratings. In that case, understanding the requirements is critical to building a safe structure that performs as expected.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that where fire rating is concerned, the wall is only-rated according to its weakest point. In other words, if any part of a wall – even just a single corner or joint – fails to meet the fire rating requirements, the entire wall fails and cannot receive the fire rating. The fire-rated construction must provide a continuous barrier in order to certify. The image shown below demonstrates how a consistent fire-rated drywall layer is maintained while adding a second layer to include a decorative corner bead. Fire safety and drywall have a long history history you can read more on.

Drywall History, Design, Fire Safety (10) -1

For walls requiring a fire-rating longer than 30 minutes, there are a few options available. Drywall type X and drywall type C are both reinforced with fiberglass to enhance their fire resistance. Only type C is additionally reinforced with a mineral called vermiculite that stabilizes the core. In modern assemblies, type C is generally suited to ceilings and type X to walls, beams, and columns. Depending on the thickness of your fire-rated drywall boards, you can achieve fire ratings of one hour (standard 5/8” fire-rated drywall) or even two hours (either by double-sheeting or by using ¾” type X).

As mentioned above, it is important to double check local codes as they may vary. In general, however, codes require conformation to the ASTM 119 standard. Other notable authorities on fire rating standards include the National Fire Protection Association and the UL 263 standard.

Building Movement and Its Effects

Another important building consideration for new construction is the long-term movement of materials in response to environmental considerations such as temperature, high winds and loads. In general, building movement concerns come in two varieties: deflection and expansion. Both have important implications for meeting safety codes (especially fire codes) and for client satisfaction.

Deflection refers to the degree of movement that a building experiences under load. High-traffic or high-load areas (such as the lower levels of a large building) are especially prone to problems based in deflection. As the load above them increases, the joists can sag or concrete can begin to deform (known as concrete creep). As a result, the whole structure compresses, which can lead to unsightly inside corner cracks, costly repairs, and long-term client dissatisfaction. 

Working alongside architect, Trim-Tex, developed a drywall finishing product to combat the affects of deflection movement on drywall. Wall Mounted Deflection Bead prevents inside corner drywall cracks at the head of wall detail. A co-extruded flexible gasket compresses and expands during building movement maintaining sealed inside corner. Browse our Case Studies showcasing multi-family residential, educational, and hotel/hospitality buildings utilizing Wall Mounted Deflection Bead.Deflection-unfinished

Expansion, on the other hand, generally occurs in response to temperature. All materials swell slightly in the heat and compress slightly in the cold. As a result, seasonal fluctuations in temperature (especially in areas with a high annual temperature differential) require planning for the expansion and compression of building materials in response to ambient temperature.

For tackling the expansion movement of drywall Hideaway and 093V Expansion were developed by Trim-Tex. 093V offers a full 3/8" of controlled expansion protection, which is 3X the amount of protection offered by the metal 093 alternative. Hideaway is a low profile alternative with a flexible "W" shaped center. See for yourself how vinyl expansion beads outperform metal

For a more comprehensive look at building movement, try this free online course

You can request 9" samples of all the products featured in this article!Get FREE Samples!

Specialty Finishing Products and Fire Code

Both control joints like those detailed above and decorative finishing products like corner beads that imitate millwork are best made in vinyl. Its natural flexibility is a great fit for resilient movement, and Trim-Tex vinyl does not support combustion and is self extinguishing when the source of flame or heat is removed. However, not all vinyl is created equal – different manufacturers vary in the standards that they meet. Find technical documents on any Trim-Tex product by visiting the product of choice and scrolling to the bottom of the page. 

Introducing vinyl into a fire-rated system requires that you either install fire rated vinyl products, such as Fire Rated 093V Expansion or that you take special care when designing and installing non-fire-rated vinyl products.

fire-rated 093V before and after

In the case of fire-rated products, some manufacturers design complete fire-rated deflection assemblies, like these from Hilti and Cemco that address the head of wall detail.

From Theory to Execution

Obviously, meeting these codes and ensuring the longevity of the structure through control joints requires a good deal of planning on the part of the contractor doing the work. Fortunately, in the modern age, there are a variety of digital tools that can help the savvy contractor do this planning. This ensures that you get it right the first time with minimum material waste and minimum man hours.

While it may seem like an extra step, spending a little bit of time planning out your project in a drafting software allows you to work with a 3D model and insert specific products. This way, you can specify the necessary products to achieve fire rating (or meet other codes) as well as ensure that you are clear with the architect or general contractor about the materials and budget required. Planning everything in advance also saves you man hours on the jobsite, as everything can be organized and understood in advance, minimizing errors and time spent correcting mistakes.

Jobsite Safety

All the codes and regulations we’ve discussed have one common goal: to ensure a safe reliable environment, whether during construction, during the life of the building, or both. And while there are a number of codes and regulations governing working conditions, a lot of it boils down to thinking smart.

Naturally, the most effective way to create a safe jobsite is to avoid hazards in the first place. In a best case scenario, this can be accomplished by, for instance, planning your project ahead of time in a modeling software and ensuring that the project will not involve any cutting of material on the jobsite. While such a perfect scenario may not be attainable in all cases, planning ahead can help more than you might imagine. For instance, if you can minimized the number of cuts required, and plan exactly which pieces must be cut, you can arrange to do it outside (rather than an enclosed environment), saving your workers the risk of inhalation.

When you can’t find a way to eliminate the hazard completely, your best line of defense are systemic solutions: things that affect the whole workplace. A good example of this approach is to install environmental ventilation for the jobsite, or to create a task rotation schedule so that no one person is exposed to the hazard for too long. Instead of one employee cutting for a whole shift, assign the task to four different employees for two hours each.

Task rotation also serves to directly reduce one of the two most prevalent causes of workplace injury: overexertion. Overexertion and falls account for more than two thirds of workplace injuries for drywall workers. By giving workers a chance to switch up tasks, you reduce the risk of them straining any one body part past the breaking point. Giving them a short break in between rotations will also help them recharge their focus, minimizing errors and maximizing efficiency.

Personal Protection Equipment Construction

The last line of defense (though by no means less important) is personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes respirators, safety shoes, helmets, and so on. PPE is a great addition when hazards are present, but of course, it’s better to avoid or eliminate the hazard whenever possible. If you can’t arrange for industrial ventilation or for workers to make their cuts outside, then respirators are a must. The great thing about PPE, of course, is that it can be combined with other safety measures. For instance, even in a ventilated environment, if your employee has a respirator while cutting drywall, it still offers increased protection. If that employee can also rotate out to another task periodically, even better.

Safety Culture

Of course, all these measures, codes, and regulations are only as effective people allow them to be. If your crew doesn’t take them seriously, they don’t help anyone. For that reason, building a culture of safety is a key component of a safe, conscientious job site and a final product that meets code.

As with so many things, a safety culture starts with the people. Find and employ people you trust who take safety seriously. Encourage people to report issues and take their concerns seriously when they do. Nothing ruins a secure environment faster than employees who understand they won’t be heard. Making it clear that they can address safety problems without repercussions is the key to building trust and identifying ways to improve the site.

Another way to increase the culture of safety in your organization is to get groups talking to each other. While it’s normal for workers to gather with their team, finding ways to encourage safety discussion between teams will build a more cohesive crew while helping to discover best practices. Many safety issues (ladders, for example) are common to various positions on the same jobsite, but different teams may have different ideas about how to handle those issues. Getting them talking to each other will help identify the best approaches and help people look out for each other. Try setting up a common jobsite lunch area, holding discussions on a safety topic that affects everyone, or giving simultaneous breaks to teams doing different tasks. Be sure to reward those who find innovative ways to improve jobsite safety, not only discipline those who violate standards and regulations. Building a crew that is serious about meeting code and staying safe will reduce waste, minimize lost man hours and save money in the long run.


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