Making demolition safe

Workers demolishing the rest of the thrift store crushed this month.
Workers demolishing the rest of the thrift store crushed this month. (ALEJANDRO ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: June 20, 2013

By Robert Brehm

A Philadelphia building collapses, people are killed, and the public demands reforms to prevent future tragedies. We have seen this sequence of events before.

There are lessons to be learned, but not new ones. Engineers already know the inherent dangers of demolition and the reasons for such failures. The questions have been asked 100 times and answered 101 times.

But the public outcry winds down, political will diminishes, and contractors complain that they are overregulated. As a result, nothing gets done.

It's time for architects, engineers, builders, and the public agencies that oversee them to stop looking in the rearview mirror. Given our aging infrastructure, it's imperative that we focus on the future and put our energies into developing national protocols for safe demolition.

Mayor Nutter has already started an important conversation about what needs to happen. I believe five main changes need to occur:

The permitting process should require applicants to demonstrate experience in demolition, including all projects undertaken in the past five years and the experience of key personnel. Previous safety citations should also be disclosed.

Applicants must provide a demolition plan that details precautions to ensure the safety of workers, the public, and adjacent structures. Plans must be reviewed and approved by a professional engineer with expertise in structural engineering.

There must be a review of permit applications by someone with experience in demolition. Unfortunately, most municipal agencies lack such expertise. One solution is to require a performance bond and adequate insurance. Sureties and insurers are in the business of evaluating risk and providing financial protection. They employ people with the expertise to evaluate contractor qualifications.

All equipment operators should be randomly tested for drugs that can impair their reflexes or judgment. This should include not only illegal drugs, but also prescription drugs that can impair performance.

Lastly, contractors should be required to provide a detailed schedule of demolition activities as well as timely notice to authorities to allow for reasonable oversight. This provision must be accompanied by strong sanctions for noncompliance.

This is not intended to be the last word, but rather the beginning of an important conversation among architects, engineers, contractors, labor, code enforcers, and certainly the public through its elected officials.


Robert Brehm is an associate teaching professor in Drexel University's department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering. He can be reached at rfb23@drexel.edu.

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