Restoring old timber-framed buildings, my crew and I regularly work in two dangerous areas—foundations and roofs. Whether shoring up structures in dark, cramped basements or doing high-wire cupola repairs, we cannot afford to use uncomfortable, off-the-shelf safety equipment. Over the years, my jobsite safety plan has evolved to address working in these areas; I’ve researched similar (but unrelated) industries to find innovations that we might be able to incorporate.
Working "down low" for us typically involves jacking up buildings for a foundation replacement (see Moving a Carriage House). Jacking is an inherently risky undertaking: lots of cribbing, steel beams, and opportunities to whack your head. About 10 years ago, we switched to using hard hats made by Petzl. These rock-climbing-style helmets are not typically seen in the building trades, but for us they’ve become indispensable and have prevented severe head injuries numerous times. They come with a slot on the front for mounting headlamps (which come in handy for this lower-level work).
On our jobsites, we require that hard hats be worn at all times. The Petzl hard hat is comfortable and comes with a chinstrap that keeps it securely on your head. Here, we’re replacing the timber sills of a mid-19th-century schoolhouse.
In addition to wearing (and using) approved safety equipment, we’re vigilant about fencing off our jobsites and posting clear signage (left). We also cordon off construction materials stored outside our fenced-off perimeter, with safety posts and signage (right). Often, the structures we work on are in town centers on main thoroughfares.
The biggest investment we’ve made is in our fall-arrest and work-positioning equipment. We’ve found the technology and products that arborists and rock climbers use offer many solutions for working safely and comfortably at heights. In this photo, a crew member uses a two-rope positioning system to repair a roof valley—a far cry from using “compliance in a can” fall-protection equipment.
We often work upwards of 75 feet off the ground restoring cupolas and steeples. Here, a crew member uses a two-rope positioning system to inspect a newly installed standing-seam-metal roof on a church. Pieces of old fire hose are used to protect the fall-arrest and work-positioning ropes from the metal roof’s sharp edge.
We added a 65-foot Genie lift to our arsenal a few years ago. In this photo, we’re restoring the cupola of the schoolhouse shown in slide 3. We also use the aerial lift to drop off our crew members at their rope positions, as needed.
On larger jobs, we’ll bring in a crane and additional aerial lifts as needed. Here, we’re pulling the cupolas off a historic 6th-generation dairy-farm building in Richmond, Vermont. We restored them on the ground, then lifted them back into place a week later.
Over the years, we jettisoned compliance-in-a-can solutions (ill-fitting and uncomfortable harnesses clipped into ascenders that were cumbersome to use) and hard hats that fell off our heads as we climbed around. We’ve found climbing gear to be lighter and more comfortable than traditional construction safety equipment. Working at heights is no joke; it’s important to find gear that you’re comfortable with and will actually use.