How Oregon’s Fire-Rated Products Industry Has Changed
by Peggy Georgi
On January 28, 2001, Eugene, Ore., resident Greg Abel received a call that would change the course of his life and ultimately lead to what some consider the biggest code reform movement in the history of the architectural glazing industry. That was the day Abel’s son Jarred was seriously injured when his hand impacted wired glass while he was playing basketball in a University of Oregon gym.
Through Abel’s efforts and those of the organization he founded after his son’s injury, Advocates For Safe Glass Inc. (AFSG), much progress has been made to promote the appropriate use of glazing materials in buildings to protect public safety, through adequate building regulations, industry cooperation and public education.
“While we have made incredible strides in this safety glazing issue, we still have a lot of work to do,” says Oregon Senator Vicki L. Walker, District 7, who has been an integral part of helping AFSG change the International Building Codes (IBC) that limit the use of wired glass in all building structures in areas subject to human impact [S85-03/04]. “In a little more than five years, we have not only helped to make our schools safer but America safer as well.”
In 2003 Oregon became the first state in the nation to adopt the International Building Code amendments that eliminated the use of wired glass in hazardous locations subject to human impact in all educational facilities (K-12), gymnasiums and athletic facilities. Additionally, Oregon took the lead in limiting the use of wired glass in all other building structures, a code change that took effect one year later.
Currently, 47 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted a version of the IBC. Forty-five states and Washington, D.C., have adopted the International Residential Code.
“Our efforts have helped spur economic development here and around the country as American companies work to develop the technologies and products that meet established codes and the increased demands for safe fire-rated and impact-resistant products,” explains Sen. Walker, who became the first state senator at any level to attend an International Code Council (ICC) meeting when she testified with Abel in Overland Park, Kan., in May 2004. “When the ICC overwhelmingly voted to approve as submitted Code Change S85-03/04, this was a critical turning point in our efforts. The council was finally able to do what it had been wanting to do for many years.”
“What we knew before we began our efforts was that wired glass was being promoted as safety glass and it was everywhere, in hospitals, daycares, schools, college campus, government building and parking garages,” adds Abel. “A handful of foreign wired glass manufacturers held more than 85 percent of the market. What most of us did not know was the high risk of injury posed by wired glass in hazardous locations.”
He continues, “One of the most important changes over the past several years is that we were able to change the code to support what many people in the industry have known for decades, that wired glass is dangerous and should not have been exempt from federal impact safety standards.”
Industry Changes and Developments
Len Brunette, president of Vetrotech Saint-Gobain North America, a producer of fire-resistant glass products and a supporter of AFSG, says there have been a number of positive outcomes since the movement for wired glass reform really started rolling a few years back, and not just in the state of Oregon, but around the country.
“Focus on the wired glass issue has brought about a greater awareness to safety glazing issues as a whole,” explains Brunette, who was recently honored with an award of recognition as a life safety advocate from AFSG along with Sen. Walker and United States Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), United States Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and United States Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA). “The inherent safety dangers associated with wired glass has prompted companies around the world to develop and make available a number of greater performing fire-rated and safety-glazing materials. It has also resulted in an increased awareness for continuing education for life safety products, more education in the realm of fire-rated and safety-glazing materials, has shown a need for more code change and reform in reference to life safety products and has prompted product design changes in fire-rated and safety-glazing materials. It’s unfortunate that it takes injuries and loss of life to promote movement and change,” Brunette adds, “However, the increased awareness that has come about in the architectural community alone related to this issue shows that many are willing to step up to the plate to make the right decisions when it comes to product choice. Armed with accurate facts and more knowledge, architects and other industry professionals better understand the need for safer products. Although the potential for liability certainly plays into the decision, it’s simply unjustifiable to install a hazardous product when there are safe alternatives.”
According to Brunette, prior to 1987 there were limited choices in fire-rated systems. “Today, we have more choices of manufacturers and systems. With new players coming into the marketplace and new products, architects have more choices, are afforded more freedom in their design and this brings greater aesthetic value as well as increased safety glass for use in windows, doors and walls.”
School System Changes
Schools in the state of Oregon have also made changes when it comes to retrofitting windows, doors and other high-impact areas.
“We are in the process of finishing the retrofitting of wired glass throughout our 40-building district,” explains Jon Lauch, assistant director of facilities management for the Eugene School District 4J. In buildings with a life expectancy of ten years or less, the wired glass has been reinforced with safety film. “With more than 17,000 students in our system and in response to the type of serious
injuries we’ve seen involving wired glass, it just made sense to invest the necessary resources to make our buildings safer, especially in heavy traffic areas such as exit and gymnasium doors where the wired glass was most prevalent.”
For Monument School District #8 in rural, eastern Oregon, things have remained virtually unchanged since the new codes went into effect. With 55 students and five buildings, Monument is one of the smallest school districts in the state.
“It’s not a huge issue for us,” says Scott Langcamp, superintendent. “We have a very small amount of wired glass in our buildings and where we do have wired glass would not be considered a hazardous or high-impact area.”
“When we refurbished the high school several years ago, the main hallway and doors were replaced to be in compliance with the state’s fire-rated and safety impact codes,” adds Allen Reilly, who handles all the maintenance issues for the district. “Other than that, we are in code. We plan to replace any future broken wired glass in our buildings with glass that is within state code.”
West Coast glazing contractors agree they have seen changes in operations and the products they are using since the elimination of wired glass in Oregon.
“The biggest change for us was when we received word that an emergency stop work order on all wired glass projects was issued by the Washington State Building Code Council at its Friday, June 10, 2005, meeting,” recalls Gvido Bars, vice president of Sound Glass in Tacoma, Wash. With three locations, and backed by more than 23 years in operation, the order took this mid-size glazing contractor, as well as many others by surprise. “We were given this directive, but not any recommendations for acceptable alternatives,” Bars explains. “We had no objections to the change, especially in the interest of safety, and complied. We certainly did not want to assume any liability, especially with the jobs that were in progress at the time. We handled the situation then, much like we do today, we refer to the general contractor for direction. Because we work on all sorts of projects in the commercial sector and in many different jurisdictions, we leave it up to the general contractor to review with local building code officials for the type of fire-rated and safety-impact glazing materials that are required for each project and work from there.”
Bars continues, “We do know more today than we did then,” but adds that his company is still absorbing the costs on projects from a year ago in order to save the jobs and honor their initial quotes prior to the state’s ban on wired glass. “We still use wired glass in safety applications in jurisdictions that allow wired glass with approved safety coatings. Armorcoat®, 3M™, and LLumar® all have approved safety and security coatings for these applications. While these coatings double the cost of the glass at this time, they are a much more affordable option than other types of glazing materials on the market right now.”
Taking Orders from the Government
“While I am not an advocate of wired glass, I am much less an advocate of having government bureaucracy involved in dictating outrageous prices for fire-rated glass that ultimately hits the pockets of taxpayers,” says Brad Martin, owner of Martin Glass, a small glazing contractor serving the greater Portland, Ore., area for more than 20 years. “I recently withdrew my bid on a new construction project for our local fire station. The project required only three, 3-foot by 4-foot pieces of fire-rated glass. The prices I received from my suppliers for those windows alone were so outrageous that I just couldn’t, in my mind, justify the cost to the customer.”
Martin continues, “The wired glass issue isn’t new by any means. It’s been knocked around for years. Lawsuits are going to happen regardless, because we have become a litigious society. While I do not have an extensive background on the subject and am in favor of increased safety in our industry, I can’t say with certainty, at this time anyway, whether the code changes have made things better or worse for us.”
“I wouldn’t use wired glass anywhere that is considered to be a safety glazing area today,” says Dave Norman of Dave Norman Glass in Clackamas, Ore., “It’s a non-issue for us because of what we know and the liability associated with the product. I’ve been in the trade long enough to know that years ago people were routinely maimed by going through all types of glass including wired glass, shower and patio doors and windows. While codes are important and have been passed to help guide us, we also have to use commonsense,” Norman emphasizes. “If we know something isn’t right, we shouldn’t do it. We shouldn’t need codes and lawyers to tell us to do the right thing. Even though the owners and architects may tell us what they want, in the end, I am in control of whether I choose to stick my neck out and risk everything just because my customer wants to push the envelope. I have no trouble saying ‘no’ and when I am able to give my customers the facts on this subject, they usually concur, if they aren’t aware already.”
Norman adds, “Because we are considered to be experts in our field, we can be held liable for what we should know or should have known. We know a lot more about the hazards of wired and impact-resistant glass today than we did ten years ago. In the past, the only rational for using wired glass was because of its fire rating and cost; today we have many more options from which to choose. Yes, the prices for fire-rated glass products are higher, but they are also safer and I found that the schools and those in need of fire-rated products in safety-glazing areas prefer to incur the cost rather than risk the liability.”
On the Legal Side
The changes the glass industry and building industry have seen since Oregon’s elimination of wired glass have also fallen into legal issues.
“The effect of Greg Abel’s tireless advocacy has not been limited to Oregon,” says attorney Ken Lumb, who came across AFSG online and ultimately met Abel in 2004 through his research in preparation for a case he was working on involving a student at a suburban Chicago high school who was severely injured when his arm went through a wired glass panel in the school’s interior gymnasium door. “The ICC voted in 2003 to eliminate the long-standing exemption from impact-resistance standards enjoyed by wired glass for decades. This long overdue change was a monumental step forward for the safety of new buildings. Every building and construction professional is now conclusively on notice of the dangers of wired glass in impact areas. Though not all wired glass applications in all buildings are covered by the code, great pressure now exists to conform existing structures to the code changes.” Lumb adds, “This is particularly true in schools, athletic facilities and other buildings where children can be expected to come into contact with wired glass. The fact that a code does not require an existing wired glass application to be removed does not mean the application is safe. In the future, it will be difficult to defend in a personal injury lawsuit a decision to save money by leaving wired glass in impact areas or to replace broken wired glass with the same product. Greg Abel’s efforts have not only changed the future course of school construction, but have also placed enormous pressure on school districts and other property owners to make their existing properties safe.”
Today, Abel, Brunette and a whole host of life safety and safe glass advocates from inside and outside the glass and glazing industry travel around the country speaking to industry professionals, architects, building inspectors and school personnel on fire and safety-rated glazing issues.
“There are still a lot of misconceptions about wired glass,” says Brunette. “For example, one misnomer is that retrofitting and/or installing new fire-rated and safety-glazing products that are up to code is cost prohibitive. This is not the case. These new products are designed for a life of some 50 years and when you average out that cost, it’s really not all that expensive to put in both a good product and a safe one. This code change and awareness is a good beginning.” Brunette adds, “It is a positive for the overall life safety issue where we can now utilize products that offer fire and impact protection. As we continue to address this issue, the next challenge that is gaining significant interest in our industry is radiant heat transfer.”
“Like many other professionals in this field, I never knew that wired glass was as dangerous as it is and once I learned of the dangers, I stopped using it,” notes Norman. “Even if they were unsuccessful in passing the new codes, I couldn’t, in good conscious, use this type of product knowing that someone could be severely injured or even killed by coming into contact with it. Rules and codes aside, we are still responsible.”
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