I cringed when I heard my client say “we are not following the S520” as he was complaining about being mistreated by a claims adjuster on a job. I let the comment pass without finding out more details on why. It was obvious to me in the conversation that the S520 itself was not the source of his problem. The root problem was an uninformed claims adjuster calling the shots on the water remediation job by deciding what would be paid for. 

The adjuster in this case apparently had never heard of the S500, the S520 or any other water/mold remediation standard. Out of ignorance, the adjuster had put the insurance company and my client into a high-risk position to save a few bucks on a water loss.

My client’s comment about not following the S520 has been bothering me every day since we chatted. Industry standards and guidelines, especially if they are ANSI accredited, can be an effective risk management tool. This adjuster was throwing that tool out the window and my client was along for the ride.

For readers new to the subject, I need to provide a glossary of acronyms or this article is not going to make any sense:

  • The IICRC S520 is the ANSI-accredited Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Mold Remediation.
  • The S500 is the water and drying standard and reference guide.
  • ANSI is the “American National Standards Institute.”
  • The IICRC stands for the “Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification.” It produces the S520 and more than 20 other technical manuals and standards.

Following generally accepted industry standards and guidelines as a risk management strategy in restoration work is important for claims adjusters and contractors alike.

Claims adjusters are capable of creating substantial risk on a job. The whole “toxic mold” insurance crisis 10 years ago was created by claims adjusters working for Farmers Insurance Company on a homeowners insurance loss involving a leaky ice maker. Farmers insured the home, owned by Melinda Ballard in Dripping Springs, TX, under a policy with a $300,000 limit of liability. The subflooring had developed mold as a result of leaking water from the ice maker.

Farmers spent a year not doing the right thing to fix the mold in the subflooring, partly because they kept assigning new adjusters to the loss and partly, in my opinion, because there were no mold standards and guidelines available at the time to follow. Ballard ended up suing Farmers for bad faith claims adjusting practices, including punitive damages for exposing her family to toxic mold. On the first go-around in the lawsuit, Ballard won a $32 million judgment.

The concept that an insurance company could issue a homeowners insurance policy with a $300,000 limit of liability and be faced with a $32 million dollar loss as a result of mold in a home made the entire insurance industry go ballistic. Right after the Ballard case, the insurance industry slammed exceptionally broad exclusions for losses involving even the threatened existence of fungus or bacteria in a building (including Category 3 water) into virtually every property and liability insurance policy sold in the U.S.

The moral to the story is that it was an uninformed claims adjuster that set the mold insurance crisis into play. The whole issue with restoration contractors needing specialized insurance for their mold and Category 3 water work today can be traced back to the uniformed claims adjusters working the Ballard claim. 

In dismissing the S520, my client and the adjuster did not know what a powerful risk management tool they were abandoning.

I happen to know for a fact that every word in the S520 has been reviewed at least six times to accomplish a couple of things:

  1. Make it hard to mess up on a mold job or a water job that has some mold involved.
  2. Make it hard for a lawyer to sue you and win if you do have a problem on the job. 

How would I know such a thing? I sat on the volunteer consensus drafting committees with almost 30 other subject matter experts for five years to produce the first two editions of the S520.

From comments I have heard over the years regarding what is wrong with an IICRC standard on various topics, some people seem to think a very small group of drafters, or maybe just one person, writes a book and then it becomes published as an industry standard through the IICRC. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the way the ANSI-accredited IICRC standards are developed that makes them such an effective risk managment tool for the contractors following them.

From my experience in serving on the consensus drafting committees for the S520 and the S500 standards, here is how the drafting process of an IICRC standard really works:

  1. A call for membership on the consensus drafting committee of a standard is posted on the Web and sent out by the IICRC though various venues.
  2. Interested parties willing to volunteer what will likely be a couple of years of their life and what could end up being be a few thousand dollars in out-of-pocket travel expenses to the IICRC cause complete an application for membership on the drafting committee. Potential volunteers for the consensus drafting committee of the standard also complete a potential conflict of interest disclosure form. Both forms are sent to the IICRC for future consideration.
  3. A chairperson for the standard is selected by a committee of top-ranking IICRC officials based on the person’s knowledge and proven ability to work on a standard.
  4. The standard chairperson, along with IICRC staff support, selects the consensus drafting committee members from the pool of volunteer applicants on file with the IICRC based on the skill sets and expertise needed to produce a world-class standard.
  5. The standard chair convenes meetings of the drafting committee members. In the meetings, each chapter is discussed with the full committee and written recommendations for changes are solicited by the standard chair. If it is a new standard being developed, input is sought on the topics the standard should address.
  6. A chapter chair and a back-up or co-chair is selected by the standard chair for each chapter. Each chapter chair can build a subcommittee for the chapter from the members of the consensus drafting committee. The chapter chair is responsible for producing the written chapter they are assigned.
  7. Each chapter chair seeks out peer group input for their chapter and proceeds to draft the chapter.
  8. Once each chapter is written by the chapter committee, it is reviewed and discussed by the entire consensus drafting committee. Here is one place where the consensus drafting process of the document comes into play. Any voting member on the consensus drafting committee can object to something as simple as where a comma should be placed in a sentence. When that happens, the entire consensus drafting committee hears the opposing and supporting views. After debate on the item, the standard chair takes a vote on where the comma should go. The committee will keep debating and voting until there is consensus in the entire drafting committee on the placement of the comma. I specifically remember sitting in a particularly dingy conference room in Las Vegas with about 20 committee members re-voting on the placement of a comma for 10 minutes with strict adherence to the Robert’s Rules of Order. Imagine the lengthy debate on something more complex, like how to objectively discuss heat drying in the document without creating a competitive advantage for anyone selling drying equipment. Reaching consensus within the drafting committee all the way down to the placement of every comma in the document is one reason why it can take years simply to update an IICRC standard.
  9. Once the chapters have all been accepted by the consensus drafting committee, the document goes into professional editing to make sure  each chapter reads consistently. This can be a difficult step because the writing styles of the chapter chairs differ.
  10. After editing the document, it goes back to the chapter committees to see if anything changed in the chapter content during the editing stage. Inadvertent changes in content from the original consensus, which may have been created in the editing stage, are re-edited out by the chapter committees and resubmitted to the editing team.
  11. Then the document is ready for public comment. On the second edition of the S520, there were over a thousand comments with suggestions for improvement in the document. It is interesting to note these comments were received after almost 30 subject matter expert members of the consensus drafting committee had spent two years voting on everything on a document that had already gone through the entire process once. If the IICRC receives multiple comments on the same subject, those comments are grouped by category. The full consensus drafting committee then reconvenes to consider all of the comments received. Each comment or group of similar comments is reviewed and voted on by the overall drafting committee to either (a) accept a recommendation, which may involve actually changing the document or (b) to reject it. Comments designed to create a de facto endorsement or a competitive advantage for a particular product or process within an IICRC standard will always be rejected by the committee because of IICRC rules prohibiting such practices.
  12. During the standard development process, ANSI is monitoring the actions of the drafting committee for adherence to ANSI rules for drafting industry standards.
  13. After all of this input, the document is prepared in final draft form where it is put under the microscope again by the chapter committees and finally voted on by the IICRC Board of Directors for acceptance.

It took five years and thousands of hours of volunteer time to produce the first two S520 documents. The S520 really does, to the maximum extent, represent the consensus of the entire restoration industry on how mold remediation should be conducted.

The S520 also helps contractors manage risks in mold remediation. Have you ever noticed there are not very many “you must do it this way” dictates in the S520? That is not an accident - the drafting committee purposely kept an eye on not setting liability traps for contractors to step into. The S520 document is written specifically to allow a knowledgeable contractor to make field decisions based on the general principles expressed in the document.

Where you do not want to find yourself is sitting in court trying to explain why you decided to do something a certain way on a mold job that goes counter to the consensus opinion that produced the principles contained in the S520 standard in the first place.

There are other mold remediation guidelines that also provide very good advice. A few years ago, Dr. Michael Pinto published a comparison of the most popular mold remediation guidelines. His conclusion was they all followed the same basic principles. Some of these guidelines no doubt will be more useful on some jobs than the S520. More importantly than following any of the standard and guidelines to the letter is not to deviate from the basic mold remediation principles followed by all of them.

So why has the conversation with my client not following the S520 been haunting me every day for weeks? If they were not following S520 on the job, I wonder what principles of mold remediation the adjuster was dictating to my client? I suspect the answer to that question would be “none” and that is a risky position to be in.

The basic mold remediation principles of the S520 and the other industry standards should make you bullet proof from claims alleging negligence on a mold remediation project gone bad. The same can be said for the S500 water standard. But the IICRC Standard and Guidelines can be a double-edged sword - the same document that protects a contractor from liability can be used effectively against contractors (and claims adjusters) as proof of negligence if they do not follow the principles expressed in the document.

My advice is to do it by the book as much as you can. If a job site condition dictates a deviation from the IICRC standards, be sure to follow the general principles of mold or water remediation that all the standards in common use today are built off of. Doing so may help you save the company someday on a job gone bad.