Wired glass – which is being phased out in the United States because of the risk of severe injuries – could be a feature of Canadian buildings for decades to come.
Wired glass contains wire mesh, which is supposed to help slow the spread of fires. But it’s been known for decades that wired glass is weaker than regular glass and can break easily causing serious injuries.
Because of those risks the United States began phasing out traditional wired glass in 2003. Canada is just now looking at updating these standards.
Greg Abel of Portland, Ore., helped fight for that change in the early 2000s after his son was injured in a university gymnasium.
“I realized that people had been being lied to,” says Abel. “People that had been told when they were injured that they were just a freak injury, that it should not have happened, that it was an isolated incident, that was not the case at all. There were literally thousands of young people being injured annually.”
Glass breaks easily
Wired glass is used for fire protection. The wire in the glass holds shards together preventing the spread of flames. However, the wire in the glass makes it weaker and more prone to breaking on impact.
“Wired glass is half the strength of the regular glass you start with so by putting that in there, even though it looks all strong and great you’re reducing the strength of that original glass by about a factor of two,” says University of Toronto engineering professor Doug Perovic.
It’s misleading because most people assume this glass is stronger than regular glass, says Perovic.
The glass can also cause severe injuries when broken. Advocate Greg Abel says it’s like a finger trap.
“You’re injured when your arm goes through the glass. And you’re injured, probably more severely when you try to withdraw and pull your hand out back out.”
Devon King has experienced this first hand. In 2009 he pushed a wired glass panel in a door at a hotel in Kingston, Ont., where he was staying for a wedding. It was a door he said he went through nearly a dozen times that day. This time however, the glass broke and his arm went through.
“Since it was wired glass, normally the window would shatter and break away, but the wire held the glass in place,” says King.
The glass sliced through an artery and two of his nerves. Devon was rushed to the hospital for an emergency nine-and-a-half hour surgery where he says his heart stopped multiple times on the table.
“I could have easily died there,” says King.
His life was saved but his plans for the future were dashed. At the time King was studying at the Royal Military College in Kingston to become a pilot, something he had always wanted to do. The lasting damage was so severe, medical experts decided he would never recover fully to work as a pilot.
Today even simple tasks like typing, cutting, or buttoning a shirt are a challenge for King.
“I was released from the military, had to find a new career, had to find new ways to do everything that I do,” says King. “It changed every facet of my life.”
In court documents, the hotel where King was injured said his injuries were a result of aggressive behaviour. The hotel said that King punched the door while intoxicated. King admits he was drinking at the wedding reception but maintains he pushed the door with normal force.
Used in most schools across Canada
Serious injuries like King’s are not only happening to adults. Wired glass is commonly found in public schools. Millions of dollars have been incurred by insurers of schools in relation to incidents in schools across the country.
16×9 spoke to some of Canada’s largest school boards. All the school boards we spoke with told us that most of their schools had some wired glass. Wired glass is particularly problematic in schools because of the active nature of school-aged children and teens.
Michael Smitiuch is a Toronto based injury lawyer representing several students who have been injured in their schools. He calls wired glass a ticking time bomb.
“It’s just a matter of time before children – being children – will impact the glass and be severely injured, like they have already been,” says Smitiuch. He says since his first wired glass client went public in 2014 he has received calls from across the country on this issue.
Changes planned, but outcome uncertain
Alternatives have been available for 10 or 15 years according to University of Toronto’s Doug Perovic. The reason they are not being used more often is building codes still allow wired glass to be installed.
Those codes refer to a standard that hasn’t been updated since 1990. The group responsible for modernizing these guidelines is the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB). The CGSB refused an interview with 16×9 about why standards haven’t been updated in over 25 years but said in a statement that a process is underway to review them.
A new standard is expected in mid to late 2016 but will not take effect immediately. This week a draft of this standard was released for public review.
The standard will need to be adopted by building codes to become enforceable. It’s unknown how long it will take for wired glass to be phased out in new construction to the degree it has been in the United States. When that does happen it will not affect wired glass already installed across Canada in schools, hospitals and other buildings – unless special action is taken.
Victims of wired glass accidents like Devon King say changes to the standard are way past due.
“It needs to be completely updated and have that glass essentially banned in Canada because it’s unsafe,” says King.
16×9’s “Clear Danger” airs Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016 at 7pm.
We are unable to post a copy of the draft standard released the end of January for public review due to copyright issues. However anyone looking to obtain a copy of the draft standard can contact:
Manager, Standards Division
Canadian General Standards Board
Telephone: 819-956-0425 or 1-800-665-CGSB