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When it comes to construction, demolition is often the most dangerous part

Two collapses in recent weeks highlight the risks of taking buildings down to put new ones back up.

A portion of the Government Center Garage in downtown Boston collapsed in March, killing a demolition worker.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Erecting the tons of steel and concrete and glass that go into new buildings all over Boston is rife with difficulty. Taking it all down can be even more dangerous.

Two serious demolition accidents in Boston in recent weeks have left one man dead and three others injured — one recovering after being trapped amid rubble for hours. The incidents highlight the hazards that come with tearing down buildings in particular, which experts say is often more difficult than new construction because of the myriad hazards involved in the trade.

“In general, demolition is one of the most risky activities that can happen in construction, and demolition occurs basically on every construction site,” said Tom Prasky, head of delivery in the Americas for Unispace, a Boston design and construction firm. “There’s an infinite amount of factors that need to be considered any time you do demolition.”

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Much of the work that goes into taking apart a building focuses on first minimizing risk and learning as much as possible about the structure. That requires strict due diligence and study of the structure that’s being taken down, which includes examining construction drawings, considering the conditions and weather when the structure was built, and the types of chemicals used, Prasky said.

Still, the work is often rife with uncertainties, particularly for historic buildings. It’s standard for crews to take samples of concrete to assess its condition before moving forward with demolition, including the type of “rebar,” a series of reinforcing bars used to fortify concrete when it’s poured, Prasky said. But it’s often difficult to know what’s inside a concrete wall until it’s taken apart. Prasky, who once worked as a union demolition contractor, recalled finding a glass Coca-Cola bottle from decades prior at one site.

“Those kinds of things happen all the time,” he said. “Demolition is not an exact science.”

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Errors on construction and demolition sites, where tons upon tons of materials have to be shifted using heavy machinery, often at high heights, can have deadly consequences. Of the 62 workers who died on the job in Massachusetts last year, 15 — about one-fourth — were from the construction industry, according to a recent report from the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Of those, six died by falls.

The old Boston Edison power plant in South Boston, where a catwalk collapse last week injured three workers. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Workplace fatalities in Massachusetts have been on a downward trend, with 80 workers dying on the job in 2017, 77 workers in 2018, and 72 workers in 2019. That figure dropped to 45 workers in 2020, when the industry slowed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and swung back up to 62 last year.

“Construction continues to be the most dangerous of all occupations,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of MassCOSH. “Demolition is really dangerous work in particular.”

That’s due in part to what the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration refers to as “unknown hazards” — perils that may be hidden beneath the surface, particularly on historic properties where conditions may have shifted or evolved over time, and record keeping could be spotty.

So OSHA requires a variety of “preparatory operations” prior to starting demolition work, including an engineering survey, bracing damaged floors and walls, and protecting any openings where workers could fall.

Up to 75 percent of OSHA citations on demolition jobs nationally come from improper or incomplete preparatory operations, and more than half of those are for not conducting an engineering analysis.

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“It’s not uncommon for employers to skip that step. It can have devastating impacts,” Sugerman-Brozan said.

It’s not clear what happened at the two high-profile recent demolition accidents in Boston — last week’s catwalk collapse at the former Boston Edison power plant in South Boston, which injured three workers, and the March collapse of a part of the Government Center Garage downtown, which killed demolition worker Peter Monsini. OSHA launched investigations into both episodes.

But Mayor Michelle Wu last week said the string of incidents “is unacceptable.”

“We need to be absolutely confident that this will not happen again,” Wu told reporters last week. “The workers who are putting so much in to make sure that these buildings are safe for all of the staff and companies and others who might visit them in the future — they need to be safe in the moment of building these structures as well.”

Mayor Michelle Wu last week at the scene of a construction accident in South Boston where three workers were injured. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Suffolk Construction Co. last week paused all of its projects in Boston for a citywide safety stand down, where it reviewed safety standards and procedures. After halting work Thursday and Friday, Suffolk — who is the construction manager at the Edison plant and had a worker injured in a 30-foot fall at a project in the South End on Thursday — reopened its job sites Monday.

“After rigorous safety evaluations in partnership with our subcontractors, we confirmed all our jobsites exceed the strictest of safety criteria,” the company said in a statement. “All Suffolk projects in Boston are now operational, and we will continue to aggressively maintain the highest levels of safety on our jobsites.”

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The city in recent years has taken steps to bolster construction safety. Following the drownings of Robert Higgins and Kelvin Mattocks when a South End trench collapsed and flooded in 2016, Martin J. Walsh, the former mayor, filed an ordinance requiring companies and individuals to report their safety history — including any outstanding OSHA violations. The city has “the right to deny, revoke or suspend” a work permit based on that safety record.

Wu last week said her administration is “holding strong” to those provisions.

“If there’s any contractor or subcontractor who has a documented history of safety violations, they are not to do business in the city of Boston,” Wu said.


Catherine Carlock can be reached at catherine.carlock@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bycathcarlock.