Some demolition accidents happen in full public view, such as the sudden collapse of a 13-story condominium in Miami Beach in 2018.
In that accident, large fast-rolling chunks of concrete propelled by a progressive collapse that had started before all preparations were finished, struck and killed Samuel Tyrone Landis, 46, who was employed by the demolition contractor.
Most fatal demolition accidents, such as the six that occurred in the first half of 2021, happen out of public view and are not recorded by phone cameras. But they, too, often involve premature collapses or losses of support—accidents that safety experts say can be prevented with proper planning and care.
An ENR review of US Occupational Safety & Health Administration 2021 fatal demolition accident records shows that January started badly.
A 7 x 6-ft slab section broke free under Harris' feet and he died of blunt force trauma and crushing wounds from the concrete that landed on top of him.
—U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration report
The first accident occurred on New Year’s Day last year in Lincoln, Neb. Twenty-five-year-old Mason Mack Harris and another worker were employed by locally based Mwe Services Inc., also known as Midwest Demolition, that was doing demolition work for an expansion project at a youth shelter. The two were trying to remove a typical concrete balcony slab on the second level, about 10 ft above ground.
Harris was using a 2-gal. spray pump to spray water on the surface to clear dust created by his co-worker, who was operating a masonry saw.
As they worked, a 7-ft x 6-ft slab section broke free under Harris’ feet, and in the fall, the concrete landed on top of him. He died of blunt force trauma and crushing wounds while his co-worker suffered a broken leg.
OSHA cited Mwe Services for three serious violations and proposed a fine of $30,000, later reduced to $21,000—and an informal settlement was reached, records show.
The firm did not respond to a request for comment.
Four days after the Lincoln, Neb., accident, A&W Excavations, based in Chipley, Fla. and recently founded, had several employees working beneath the roof of a commercial building in the area they intended to demolish. According to OSHA records, the crew that was chain-sawing building truss members had been trained in trenching and excavation pipe-laying but not in the task they were performing that day.
As they worked, the roof collapsed, dropping the crew about 15 ft to the floor, killing one member. The others had injuries treated at a hospital.
OSHA cited A&W Excavations for six serious and one willful violations. The initial proposed penalty of $170,000 was cut to $70,000 under an informal settlement.
The accidents continued with another fatality in May.
An employee of New York City-based Richmond Construction Inc. finished jackhammering a roof section of a Brooklyn, N.Y., building and took a walk along the exposed roof edge. At some point, the roof section broke apart and the worker fell 60 ft to his death. In November, OSHA proposed a $374,000 fine against Richmond Construction for serious and willful violations. Last month, the firm indicated it would contest the penalties, OSHA records show.
Miami Beach Accident Aftermath
The 2018 Miami Beach accident, which occurred on July 23, was one of the most unusual accidents captured on video.
Phone recordings showed Landis and others fleeing across closed Collins Avenue as the deadly concrete chunks rolled outward from the collapsing structure and dust cloud. One concrete chunk struck Landis in the leg, the video shows, with a second chunk hitting him squarely in the chest, driving him backward and to the ground. He died 10 days later.
An employee of locally based AlliedBean Demolition, Landis had worked in the construction industry most of his life. According to his obituary, he started as a laborer but also worked as an operating engineer, supervisor and operator of his own demolition contractor.
Miami Beach officials, in a news conference shortly afterward, had said that they turned down the project team’s application for permission to bring the existing building down with explosive demolition. As an alternative, the team planned a progressive collapse without explosives and invited spectators to view it.
Federal safety officials cited AlliedBean Demolition for two serious violations and proposed a penalty of $29,900. An informal settlement was reached, public records show.
Landis’ mother, Judith Anne Landis, filed a lawsuit in 2019 in state court in Miami-Dade County against AlliedBean Demolition and numerous other companies involved with the project. The claims in that suit all were settled before trial, said AlliedBean’s attorney.
Company President Kevin Bean confirmed the settlement and said only that what had happened was “an unfortunate accident.”
Experts On Sudden Loss of Support
Contractors must follow a detailed demolition plan, said Ken Shorter, a Baltimore-based safety consultant and expert witness. That plan should include a hazard analysis and a document about how to proceed with the work. The hazard analysis should be used to train the project crew.
“Any professional demolition company will do that," Shorter said, in order to comply with standards for construction and demolition operations published by the American National Standards Institute and the American Society of Safety Professionals.
In addition, a competent person should monitor the work continuously, he said, to make sure a structure hasn’t reached a state of collapse. He said a qualified person is needed to do that and for a complex structure, "a structural engineer may be the way to go.”
One important principle followed by North American Dismantling Corp., a contractor, is to maximize the use of equipment and minimize the use of manual labor and exposure to hazardous conditions.
Another rule, the Lapeer, Mi.-based contractor says on its website, is to maintain adequate spacing on a jobsite. Safe distances must be maintained "from the point of implosion or impact, from falling debris and from demolition equipment."
Shorter noted that because demolition work often involves deteriorated buildings, sometimes tragedies are tough to avoid.
“It’s not always easy to predict when a collapse will happen,” he said. “Part of the supervisor’s work should be to ensure that the workers are working according to the plan [because] all it takes is a worker with a torch cutting too much for a collapse to happen.”