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Making Demolition Safe

By Dr. Robert Brehm

In Philadelphia a building collapses, six people are killed and 14 injured creating outrage, a public outcry and pressure to determine the cause and to reform regulations to prevent future tragedies of this nature. Although, there is mounting evidence that gross negligence on the job site might have contributed to this tragedy, we have heard this story and seen this sequence of events before. There are lessons to be learned for sure, but no new ones. We, in the engineering community, know of the inherent dangers of demolition and why failures occur.

The collapse of a building on 22nd and Market Streets in center city Philadelphia killed six people in injured more than a dozen in early June.

The questions have been asked 100 times and answered 101 times, but the public outcry winds down, political will gets diminished and contractors lobby that they are already over- regulated. As a result, nothing gets done. It is now time for the architectural, engineering and construction community along with the public agencies responsible for oversight to stop looking in the rear view mirror. We know the answers to most of the questions. With our aging infrastructure, it is imperative that we focus on the future and put our energies into developing a national model that establishes protocols for the safe demolition of buildings and ensures worker and public safety.What can we do?

Last week Mayor Nutter started an important conversation about what needs to happen to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy.  It is my belief that five main changes need to occur:

Start by establishing a permitting process that requires the applicant to demonstrate its experience in demolition including citing all projects undertaken in the past- say five years- including in that the experience of key personnel. All safety violations or citations of noncompliance for the same period of time should also be disclosed.

Secondly, the application must include a demolition plan which includes a detailed site safety plan to ensure the safety of the workers, the public and any adjacent structures that could be impacted by demolition activities. That plan must be reviewed and approved by a professional engineer with a practicing expertise in structural engineering.

Thirdly, there needs to be a review of the salient documents in the permit application from an individual or entity with experience in demolition. Unfortunately, most municipal agencies lack such expertise. A solution to that problem is to require a performance bond and adequate insurance. Sureties and insurance companies are in the business of evaluating risks and providing third parties with financial protection. Although receiving monetary compensation is not the primary objective, the financial risks serve as a significant motivator for sureties and insurance companies to have personnel with the expertise to evaluate contractor qualifications and experience profiles.

Fourthly, all equipment operators should be randomly tested for drugs that can impair their reflexes and/or judgment. This should not simply be limited to the broad category of “recreational drugs,” but also prescription drugs that, although legally taken, can impair performance.

Lastly, the contractor should provide a detailed schedule of its demolition activities with notice requirements in place to provide timely notices to compliance authorities to allow for reasonable oversight inspections of critical operations. The notice provision must be accompanied with strong sanctions for noncompliance.

The above discussion is not intended to be the final resolution, but the beginning of an important and necessary conversation. There are a lot of stakeholders that need to have their voices heard. They include architects, engineers, contractors, organized labor, municipal code enforcement official, and certainly the public through their elected officials.

This op-ed was originally printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 20, 2013. Read it here.

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