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With a dozen fatalities in the last 12 years in the U.S. related to power plant demolitions, the industry is issuing a call for better safety practices.

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March 2, 2021

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Coal-fired power plants are highly sought-after projects for many demolition contractors thanks to the number of facilities getting put up for bid and their propensity to pay well due to the scope of work involved.

The flip side of the coin is that professionals largely consider power plant demolition to be the most dangerous job in the industry right now.

Over the last 12 years, 12 demolition contractors in the U.S., and five more in the U.K., have died as a result of accidents at power plants. Perhaps most alarmingly, 13 of these fatalities have occurred in the last five years, which highlights the reality that the problem is getting worse, not better.

With reports of power plant fatalities continuing to be all-too common in the news, the industry is coming together to identify the common causes of these incidents and develop guidelines for safer operation.

Looking at the problem

Joe Vendetti is the senior vice president of industrial services at Integrated Demolition and Remediation Inc. Vendetti has more than 30 years of experience successfully demolishing industrial plants around the globe, including 48 power plants featuring more than 200 boilers.

Generally speaking, he says issues at power plants occur because of one or more of the following reasons: complacency, lack of proper engineering evaluation, failure to adopt management of change (MOC) practices, lack of understanding from the contractor and/or owner of the dangers of hung boilers, and customers that allow those with substandard safety records to bid on projects.

One thing Vendetti notes is that contractor experience isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of safety.

“There isn’t one particular thing we as an industry can point to [in terms of who is most likely to have an accident]. There have been very experienced contractors in hung boiler demolition that have had bad accidents and then some with zero experience,” Vendetti says.

Vendetti says rather than the experience of the contractor, the complexity of dealing with hung boilers and the different engineering requirements for each job pose the biggest hurdles for most contractors.

“I think it comes down to being engaged with engineers, but it’s also often a complacency thing. As a contractor, you may think you’ve made a certain type of cut so many times or you worked on the same configuration of columns so many times without incident, but without having a checklist and going through a third-party engineer to show them your plan, look at the steel strength and things like that, you’re putting yourself at risk,” he says.

Vendetti says because the drawings of these facilities date back decades, it is difficult to rely on their accuracy. Also, because different plants are composed of different steel classifications, contractors need to be aware of the potential ramifications of each cut.

“Different types of steel can vary significantly in strength, and a cut that you may make on one piece of steel may not cause it to fail, where it would on another piece of steel that’s not as strong,” Vendetti says. “And if you don’t pay that type of attention to detail on every single cut, you’re going to have an accident.”

Likewise, Vendetti says the engineering of hung boilers can lead to complexity on the job. Since these boilers are designed to redistribute their loads, when a contractor cuts through one column connecting a boiler, the structure can shift its load to the next strongest point.

By having a fluid engineering survey, Vendetti says you can better understand potential hazards as work progresses.

“From a 50,000-foot view, the hung boilers are not like most structures,” he says. “Plus, most of these structures have been modified or added onto over the years. To quote Ahmed Khalil, director of engineering, at Applied Science International (ASI), ‘Because these boilers are hung from the top, the 3D load path is quite complex and the load redistribution when making cuts is, in many cases, counterintuitive.’ This is a key statement. Unlike a traditional 18-story building, for example, where loads are most always carried equally, columns under boilers are designed for shifting weight above.”

Vendetti says that some contractors bid on projects erroneously thinking that an ultra-high-reach excavator can be used to do all the cutting of boiler beam structures or that they can use an implosion specialist to do all the heavy lifting for bringing down the structure. The reality is that in both cases, contractors need to do much of this work by hand.

Of course, the need to manually do this work increases the risk, which is why workers and supervisors need to be obsessive about identifying and discussing warning signs before, during and after each phase of a job.

Vendetti says contractors should utilize subject matter experts when writing work plans and review these plans with each team member involved throughout the project.

“Your team needs to know what to expect (pops, noises, bird mouths, etc.) when you start cutting into a structure so if they see something different than what is supposed to occur, they can stop work. You also need to plan every cut, which means engaging a structural engineer to analyze your plan before you start thinking about cutting into a column, beam, etc. Whether you plan on cutting and cabling a structure over or using explosives, there are many cuts that have to be made first,” Vendetti says.

Vendetti says there should be one safety officer or safety tech for every 25 workers to properly oversee a project. He also advocates for making at least one observation for every 75 man-hours worked. He says supervisors should be making observations of both good and bad behavior and be willing to stop work in either case to highlight what was done right and what was done incorrectly.

“Contractors should be vigilant in going over lessons learned. … Showing your team the mistakes that have occurred is just as important as the successes. If you have multiple cameras, drones or even simulations—these are important tools,” Vendetti says.

Developing a plan

This issue of demolition safety is something that Tim Barker, D4 program manager at AECOM, has made a career of.

At the beginning of his career, while working as a project manager for one of the country’s biggest contractors, one of the workers on his team died on the job due to an accident that could have been prevented. This coworker, like Barker at the time, was expecting the arrival of his first child.

Motivated by this loss, Barker spent the next two decades of his career embarking on a crusade to champion safety in demolition, which is embodied through his adherence to a risk mitigation strategy that emphasizes identifying, assessing and mitigating risks.

Identifying risks

Barker says, “Individuals, companies and the industry at large should be willing to look inward to identify common risks, past failures and sources of safety-related shortcomings just as I had to after my first—and I pray last—on-the-job fatality nearly 30 years ago.

“Talking frankly about our train wrecks—the things we are very uncomfortable to bring up or that are sometimes the elephants in the room—in order to find solutions, is my first crucial point in clearly identifying all issues that need to be addressed in power plant demolition,” he says.

Barker says that while it is human nature to want to focus on success, contractors should also identify painful lessons learned such as through near misses or accidents to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

“One of the first questions I would ask someone looking for solutions [after dealing with a failure on the job] is, ‘Have you done a postmortem to thoroughly dissect the death of your plan, program, business, big idea or failed demolition approach?’” he says. “This admission to ourselves of our part in a failure or problem, albeit small or large, is a crucial step in this whole process before we can move on to safely succeed [in the future].”

Barker advocates that each member of an organization be willing to take an inward look at what the team could have done better, or steps the team might have taken that could have helped prevent a specific issue. While this may seem obvious, Barker notes he continues to see himself, his own teams, contractors, owners and their representatives fail to learn from previous mistakes made during power plant demolition. In order to address this, Barker relies heavily upon lessons learned.

“Notably, some of the larger demolition contractors in the industry have made the same fatal mistake twice using a particular high-risk, low-cost approach, and they continue to defend it pointing to the structural engineer plan review, and worse, they use it again,” he says.

Barker says that for those who insist on utilizing high-risk, low-cost demolition methods to be competitive, it’s a matter of “when, not if,” a safety incident will occur.

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Assessing risks

Barker says assessing risk involves looking for common denominators among incidents. For example, he says if you look at the 13 fatalities that have occurred demolishing power plants over the last five years in both the U.S. and U.K., and the six that occurred on one particular project in Philadelphia seven years ago, more than half of these demolition projects were for developers, whereas only a few percent of all demolition projects in the industry are performed for developers.

Barker says that after talking with contractors about this phenomenon, he’s heard similar sentiments regarding the reasons.

“The No. 1 complaint I heard was working for developers, the contract awards are primarily based on price and schedule, not safety and experience,” Barker says. “These comments were from some of the best-in-class demolition contractors who don’t own private jets, and they are more often struggling to find work as they balance the pressure to be competitive.”

He says that giving into the pressure to utilize lower cost, higher risk demolition methods can cost contractors big, both in the potential loss of life of a worker, but also in lawsuits and insurance costs that ensue.

Mitigating risk

After identifying and assessing potential risks, contractors can work to formulate a plan that mitigates these risks. Knowing who to turn to for advice can be instrumental in helping mitigate safety-related issues, Barker says.

“I know who to go to for advice in their areas of expertise, which is my advice to demolition contractors. If I have a specific structural integrity question, I go to one of my senior structural engineers and I point them to the specific issue. If it’s a remediation challenge, I reach out to one of our many environmental scientists or PG’s. If it’s a tax issue, I go to my CPA, and you get the point,” he says. “However, if it is a big issue, I go to someone who has a tremendous amount of unbiased experience and success in the area where I’m seeking my solution. This is not the specialist we go to for technical issues. These are the big issues—how to safely manage a huge and/or high-risk demolition project or program. The life and death issues where you need good advice based on proven experience.”

Barker cautions that, often, “you get what you pay for” when selecting a contractor and when soliciting advice from fellow demolition professionals, and that even top contractors who have had plans reviewed and approved by structural engineers have had fatalities taking down power plants and other structures.

The impetus to seek qualified professionals shouldn’t just be limited to contractors, however. Barker says owners should consult with demolition experts with a background in power plant work when bidding the job to know what the acceptable parameters for the job are that prioritize safe operations.

“What does it take to prevent costly change orders and to develop safe demolition performance-based specifications that define the scope?” Barker asks. “The answer is you need someone that has a lot of demolition-specific safety experience, with a proven approach to mitigate commercial and technical risk, and not just someone who has a lot of initials behind their name.”

He says that regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys have successfully gone after owners for lack of adequate vetting and oversight relative to demolition work, and these owners have had to pay millions of dollars and suffer a tarnished reputation as a result.

Barker says that for those who insist on utilizing high-risk, low-cost demolition methods to be competitive, it’s a matter of “when, not if,” a safety incident will occur.

Before taking someone else’s safety-related advice, however, Barker says one must be willing to do their homework on the party and organizations in question.

“In all cases, whether it’s with subject matter experts or contractors, you must trust and verify their experience, qualifications and background before you ever solely rely on their advice. I do the same thing for contractors and sub-consultants on each job even though I use many of them all the time, because the people change, and they are always the most important asset in every organization,” he says.

Certified results

While there are differing opinions on exactly what the solutions are, nearly all leaders in the demolition industry champion the need for individuals, contractors, owners, engineers and utilities to take responsibility for power plant demolition safety. They also underscore the need for industry-wide standards and certifications.

The National Demolition Association (NDA), heeding the call of its members, told Construction & Demolition Recycling it is in the process of developing the industry’s first certification. As part of developing this certification, the association says increasing safety in the field will be a focal point.

“We’ve seen this big shift now to where you have a utility handling these projects with massive risk management components in-house, and they’re selling off these properties, and unfortunately, I think sometimes dollars play a big role,” Christopher Godek, owner of New England Yankee Construction and president of NDA, says. “And maybe some questions aren’t being asked in the beginning or the preplanning phases of the project that should be asked. One of the big things at the NDA that we’re really pushing for is the certification for our membership and outreach to customers, owners and developers so that they understand who the people are that should be involved in these projects based on their knowledge and understanding of these projects.”

Barker says he presented the idea of a demolition certification when he was on the NDA board, and now he believes the industry has developed the body of knowledge to successfully do it.

Barker was a contributor to the development of NDA’s 40-hour Foundations of Demolition Project Management course. In this course, lessons learned are shared in a “no name, no blame approach” where there is no reference to a past project by name, individual, contractor, architectural/engineering firm or client. Barker says that this approach predicated on insights, not incrimination, is essential for the future development of power plant certification.

To help develop a comprehensive course that champions educational best practices and no-blame learning, NDA has put together a certification board consisting of owners, general contractors and NDA members to determine the potential curriculum. The goal is to launch the course in spring 2022. In addition to the certification course, NDA announced it has agreed to an eminent alliance with OSHA that will include annual training for compliance assistance safety officers as well as an agreement for these safety officers to be made available as resources for NDA members.

NDA Executive Director Jeff Lambert notes that the NDA will also be composing a guidance document of best practices for large industrial demolition projects, including power plants. This will be made available as a reference for all industry partners. He says the association also plans to convene with engineers, general contractors and other stakeholders as part of its quarterly leadership meetings going forward to discuss lessons learned regarding structural integrity issues and other power plant-related demolition findings.

“We think certification is one answer to help bring about safety in power plant demolition, but we want to champion a comprehensive strategy incorporating everyone involved in these projects,” Godek says. “We think a rising tide will lift all boats—it will help contractors stay safe, but it will also help the owners and the general contractors have a metric to say, ‘Here’s the industry standard.’”

The author is the editor of Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine and can be reached at aredling@gie.net.