Tim Barker is the program director of decommissioning, deactivation, decontamination and demolition services (D4) for Atlanta-based AECOM. After getting his start as an assistant foreman in demolition more than 30 years ago, Barker transitioned to the position of asbestos abatement lead and hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER) technician before serving as superintendent, senior project manager, senior estimator, and operations manager/vice president for several of the largest demolition and remediation companies in the world. Barker also codeveloped the National Demolition Association (NDA) Foundations of Demolition Project Management program, where he also serves as a trainer.

As part of Construction & Demolition Recycling’s Evolution of an Industry series, we talked with Barker about regulation, safety, training and new opportunities in the abatement and demolition sectors.

Construction & Demolition Recycling (C&DR): Where do we stand now with regulation in the demolition and abatement industry?

Tim Barker (TB): Due to the lack of funding, I think the regulators have been standing on the sidelines in some states and not really getting involved in educating the industry. This lack of oversight and unclear regulatory environment is really good for the contractors that take shortcuts, but it’s really bad for those who are trying to do things right. When you cut corners, you put people at risk. There are people in the business to this day who are passing away from mesothelioma and asbestosis, and that’s unacceptable. But the pendulum swings back and forth pretty significantly. When asbestos first became a health concern, for example, regulators jumped in and really mandated over-the-top safety protocols in some states.

The bottom line is if you look at different OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations as it pertains to the demolition industry, they’re terribly outdated and almost useless on some major projects because they have references to rarely utilized wrecking balls and clam shells, no references to high-reach excavators, no reference to the shear, breaker or concrete pulverizer attachments that are commonly utilized today. There is a huge gap there. Regulators are not going to do much about this because they don’t have the budget. What we are seeing in most states is more of a reactionary and punitive approach when a complaint or accident occurs as they cite the general duty clause.

The other things we are seeing is that when OSHA sees someone doing something they’re not supposed to do or there is an injury or fatality, they’re going to tell that employer that they didn’t provide adequate training and they’re going to also cite them for this. They’re not going to listen to whether or not the worker decided to follow the plan, especially since a deceased worker is unable to verify these claims. The larger problem is that, historically, there has been a lack of great demolition-specific safety and management training.

I think the way the NDA has addressed this through its Foundations of Demolition Project Management program has been a huge step in the right direction. And soon there will be supervisor courses as well. I think companies can point to some of this NDA training if they’re investing in it and show OSHA that they’re working toward making compliance a priority through participation in these programs, which can hopefully help shield them from some liability and, most importantly, result is a safer outcome. Great safety results are often synonymous with great schedule and budget results, and there are a few industry studies that support this.

C&DR: Where are the opportunities related to demolition, remediation and abatement today?

TB: Coal-fired decommissioning power plant work is where a lot of the opportunity is today. And it actually reveals our weaknesses in the industry, because there’s been over a dozen fatalities in the last decade in the U.S. and the similarly managed and regulated U.K. when taking down power plants. While it is a challenge, it’s one of the greatest opportunities and encompasses some of the largest demolition and abatement projects we’ve seen over the last decade.

I think the next wave after coal-related projects—and I don’t know how well-positioned the demolition industry is to handle this—will be nuclear power plants. There are some major projects in this space that traditional demolition and asbestos abatement contractors have been awarded recently. If these projects go well, I’m sure other demolition contractors will be quick to follow.

I think the next wave after coal-related projects—and I don’t know how well-positioned the demolition industry is to handle this—will be nuclear power plants.” – Tim barker, AECOM

C&DR: How do you think the emphasis on safety has shifted over your years in the industry?

TB: Traditionally, the regulations facing the industry have been reactive. As for training, until recently, there hasn’t been comprehensive demolition-specific safety programs. NDA is working to change that. We have a huge safety focus, but this has to start within the culture of the companies themselves and not just be about talk—there needs to be real measurable and effective actions. It has to start from the top, which is one reason NDA is trying to get project managers really focused on risk mitigation.

Many of our clients at AECOM that we’re working for have a risk mitigation or risk management process that includes developing a risk register at the beginning of the project. These risk registers log and identify risk on the project in question across different areas, including safety, schedule, budget, etc. Although demolition contractors may not be doing this now, it’s important to understand that this is something your clients might be looking for. Once you complete a risk register, you identify high, medium and low risks and try to figure out what your steps are going to be to bring those high risks down to being of only a medium concern, and bringing those medium risks down to be of low concern, and so on. As one of the codevelopers and trainers of the NDA Foundations of Demolition Project Management program, I think this process has been very well-received as judged by the class surveys I’ve seen, and attendees leave being able to identify areas of safety, schedule and budget concern before they become a problem.

C&DR: Noncompliance can be costly. What are some best practices for contractors looking to mitigate risk?

TB: Contractors have to make safety and education a priority, and this has to come from the very top of the organization. For medium and smaller contractors, they need to be sending owners and top personnel to NDA’s supervisor training. At this training, I share some of the things AECOM has done for decades to become one of the safest and largest decommissioning management companies in the world. Larger companies need to be sending their operations managers and COOs, as well, since they may find themselves sitting by their largest power, oil and gas, and government clients, which is exactly what occurred during our last course. Company owners have been waiting years for the larger demolition industry to take the lead and develop this training that’s really going to improve the safety on their projects. And having staff engage in this training can be a selling point for demolition contractors and abatement contractors. As we know, the fatality rate, especially among power plant jobs, has been way too high in the last decade. We’re looking for seasoned and successful leaders in these industries to help us train the next generation because their experience and real-life knowledge is huge, it can help save lives and result in better-run projects with fewer project-related incidences.