YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Area companies in the excavation industry largely report a strong market this construction season, with many projects proceeding despite the pandemic.
The domestic excavation market in 2020 is valued at $68.6 billion, growing 2.7% from 2015, reports IBISWorld, a global market research firm.
Members of Operating Engineers Local 66, which covers Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio and Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania, are working on projects throughout the northeastern Ohio-western Pennsylvania region, reports business agent Carlton Ingram.
Large projects include the General Motors-LG Chem battery plant in Lordstown, the $1.3 billion gas-fueled power plant in Wellsville and the Shell ethane cracker in Pennsylvania where people are gradually being brought back to work, Ingram says.
In addition, there is a “tremendous amount” of roadwork by Ohio counties and the Ohio Department of Transportation, he says.
“We’re doing well,” Ingram says. “It looks like we will have a good year but there are still some projects that are not full blown because of the virus.”
Some private jobs might have been delayed because of delays in financing that resulted from the pandemic, the union leader speculates.
“It’s as busy as we can possibly be,” says John Woodford, one of the owners of Woodford Excavating LLC, Leavittsburg, which has been in business more than 15 years.
Woodford Excavating does “a wide variety” of commercial and public works jobs, “anything we can get our hands on,” Woodford says. “We have a wide variety of work that we can handle so it just keeps us busy.”
Among the company’s current projects is a job about five hours away. But most are in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, such as the new athletics complex the company is working on for the McDonald Local School District. “Mainly I try to stay within two hours of the home base,” he says.
Woodford, who used to race motocross, bought equipment to maintain his track, then began doing little jobs for others, eventually buying more equipment and starting the business.
In 2009, he says, “I almost lost everything” because of the drop in the residential construction markets.
The company sold much of its equipment, regrouped and refocused, with an emphasis on commercial work and public works jobs. Business has “just blown up over the rest of the time,” he says.
Jim Tressa, senior project manager at Rudzik Excavating Inc. in Youngstown, says his company is keeping busy, with several multimillion-dollar projects in the region.
Rudzik’s Pennsylvania projects were on hold for a time because construction was not considered an essential industry in the commonwealth, unlike Ohio, Tressa says.
Several contracts were in place before the pandemic and are carrying Rudzik Excavating thorough the summer.
“We just hope that the work continues to be let out for bid,” he says.
The job of excavators involves more than digging, and in fact increasingly involves advance technology.
“We do earthwork to put a site on the desired grade,” Woodford says. His company runs the public utilities on the site and places stone aggregate in preparation for concrete and asphalt.
“It all starts with the people that design the project. And hopefully they do their homework,” Tressa says. “You never know exactly what’s under the ground. But if they do their homework, you can anticipate what you’re going to run into and plan for it.”
Workers operate an array of equipment, including bulldozers, cranes, loaders and excavators.
Thanks to investments by Rudzik’s ownership, the excavation firm is “right now at the forefront in the technology and the tracking tools that we have,” according to Tressa.
Rudzik has invested in equipment from the smallest of mini-excavators to 190,000-pound excavators. “We’ve got some of the biggest dozers that Caterpillar makes,” he says.
In some respects, the excavation industry is well-suited to deal with the pandemic, the Operating Engineers’ Ingram says.
Workers are isolated in machines and socially distancing because of the nature of the work and the equipment, he explains. They aren’t right next to each other “where we’re endangering someone or someone is endangering us.”
That doesn’t mean protective measures don’t need to be taken. “Sometimes you have to get machines someone else has been in. So we still want people to keep the machines clean,” Ingram says.
Technology in the industry extends beyond the tools used to directly dig into the ground or haul material away.
“I’ve spent millions of dollars on GPS equipment so that when my guys are on site they know anywhere on that site what utilities go in, what the grade is supposed to be, whether they have to bring in dirt or take out dirt,” Woodford says.
Rudzik has an in-house surveyor who uses drone technology for “incredibly accurate” mapping, Tressa says. “What used to take two days to map out a site takes an hour now. The investment pays off in efficiency,” he says.
In some cases, material dug from one section of a job site is used to fill in another area, Woodford says.
He also operates a materials-processing yard where waste concrete asphalt is crushed; the company sells some of that material.
People are always looking for material to level out their properties, Tressa says. At the same time, one of Rudzik’s projects might need to bring in material to bring a site to the desired grade. “Every project is a little different,” he says.
Some of the biggest obstacles involve processes that came before excavation. Having good documents helps to ensure the desired outcome, Tressa says.
Another factor is weather, which can create conditions so that material can’t be manipulated to be suitable for compaction.
“You’re constantly trying to beat the winter” in this area, Ingram says. That’s the difference between this region and a place like Texas, where contractors can work on projects year round.
Workers needed by the excavation industry include laborers, operators and truck drivers.
They receive training in trench safety and how to work in confined spaces. “We all have OSHA 10,” the safety certification required for entry-level workers, Woodford says.
The Operating Engineers’ four-year apprenticeship program requires a minimum of 4,000 hours of actual work, Ingram says. Most apprentices end up with more than 7,500 hours, because of their work ethics and jobs that require overtime.
Pictured: John Woodford operates an earth-moving machine equipped with GPS.