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Case Study: The Broken Glass Panel

Case Study will examine a non-standard incident submitted by former and current FMs, where the best course of action was not clear in the moment. Please submit your thoughts and comments below!

I had just started as a temporary FM for a large insurance firm. My portfolio was small – 4 tenancies, with two of them being call centres, one being a warehouse and the sole freehold being their data centre. While the call centres raised the higher volume of work, the data centre was the true mission-critical site.

On just my third day, we were faced with one of those chicken/fox/corn conundrums. There was an atrium in the centre of the building, with a void reaching to the roof, and an A-frame array of glass panels allowing natural light in. The exterior glass was being worked on by glaziers who were replacing dry and cracked sealant around the edges. This was delicate work requiring technicians with rope training, and a ladder engineered specifically for the roof, to spread weight across steel joints rather than on the glass itself.

In the atrium itself there was scaffolding from ground to the first floor (the building was two stories tall). The scaffolding was in to accommodate painters who were touching up the interior walls, and electricians who were replacing downlights.

With the scaffolding in place, there was walking access only from the security desk and into the atrium. Normally a small scissor lift could get through, but with scaffolding in place, this wasn’t an option.

Where Things Went Wrong

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During the sealant works, the wrong ladder was used (one brought in by the glaziers, in contravention to the signed-off SWMS) and the load was not properly distributed. As a result, one of the glass panels was bumped and shattered into a wobbly spider-web of safety glass.

I came out with the facilities team who managed the core of the data room itself (I only looked after base building). We were stumped. The glass was suspended in place, but for how long?

First we secured the area and sent comms, and posted cleaners to ferry anyone coming out on Levels 1 and 2 into the walkway away from going near the north wall, where the panel was suspended over. We also requested a cleaner armed with gauntlets, a mask and goggles for handling glass in case it dropped. We taped off the area to anyone coming in from the ground entrance.

I spoke to the portfolio manager (in another city) and we examined options. Normally we would get a scissor in, extend as close as possible to under the glass, and tap it out onto the platform. That wasn’t an option, thanks to the scaffolding. Calling in techs to dismantle the scaffolding was time during which the panel could unexpectedly drop. And even then, it wasn’t a great option.

A glazier we spoke to talked about spraying the panel with adhesive from the outside, to give it a flat enough surface to attach suction cups to and pull the panel off. But he said this almost never worked and would take a few hours to co-ordinate. Again, we didn’t have the time to do this.

The Hard Decision

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Eventually we decided to go out onto the roof, wear a harness, and tap the glass through in a controlled fall. “Controlled” isn’t even the right word for it – the fall was completely uncontrolled. But at least we’d be observing the landing as safely as possible, with the area evacuated and everyone on hand to remediate as quickly as possible.

Two taps with a pole was all it took to encourage the 35 kilo ball of glass and film to fall, where it took out a chunk of wall and damaged a stainless steel balustrade before smashing into the ground floor. It was not ideal. An incident report and investigation was required in the aftermath.

Outcome

It was deemed after the investigation that the only course of action that could be conceived, with the time and physical restraints we were facing, was the one we took. We were able to recoup the costs of extra cleaners, repairs to the wall, repairs to the balustrade and a replacement panel through insurance. It took a year of arbitration for our insurer to recoup from the original glaziers who caused the damage. They did so on the grounds that the latter used was not suited for purpose.

It was determined afterwards that no exterior work should be done on any glass roofing without the area below being closed off, at a minimum. But there was still no foolproof means to prevent an incident like this from becoming very dangerous. In time, it was discussed, there would have to be capital works to replace the glass panels with a standard ceiling, and find another way to bring the natural light in.

Have you experienced this sort of incident before? Please let us know how you handled it at blog@fmclarity.com!

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