Underneath dried mud and white limestone residue, Randy Backes’ knuckles were pink from the cold, his yellow work gloves poked out of his sweatshirt pocket under Carhartt coveralls.
When he’s wiring up a blasting site, Backes would rather fill his pockets with gloves than bad luck.
“Got any bad luck in your pockets?” he asked. “Some people bring bad luck around here.”
Backes, an employee of Twehous Excavation Co., is a blaster, or powder man. It’s his job to blast rock from the sides of East Broadway, one of the first steps in a $4.87 million widening project.
On this day, he finished wiring up the explosives early and now just has to wait until 3 p.m. — the time East Broadway closes and Backes sounds the air horn that signals it’s time for him to make the ground rumble and rocks fly.
Blasting began Jan. 17 and will continue to close the busy road for about 30 minutes around 3 p.m. on workdays for another two or three weeks. The blasting is done as weather permits, but Backes prefers working outdoors no matter the conditions.
“I love being outside,” Backes said. “I’m not an inside person.”
Ray Yergin of Emery Sapp and Sons Inc., the contractor for the project, said a love for being outdoors is essential to work in blasting or construction.
“You have to be a self-starter, a hard worker, intelligent,” Yeargin said. “You have to work in all kinds of weather. It’s something different every day.”
Backes worked as a dump-truck driver before moving to the Twehous blasting crew. After taking a certification course and completing 2,000 hours of on-the-job-training, Backes received his Missouri Limestone Producers blasting license. He’s been blasting rock for 25 years.
Paul Worsey, an examiner for Missouri blaster certification courses, said blasting is one of the best-kept secrets in the construction industry.
“People seem to think it’s kind of magical,” he said. “It’s not, really. It’s practical.”
Worsey, a professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, is the university’s explosive engineering and blasting specialist. He said excavation is often required to flatten land before any type of construction project. When working with large amounts of hard rock, such as the limestone on East Broadway, blasting is the most cost-effective excavation tactic.
“When you’ve got something that’s a small amount of excavation, it may be cheaper to pick it out,” Worsey said. “Whenever you’ve got a large amount of rock to move, (blasting) is essential.”
The process involves drilling holes into the rock that needs to be moved and placing charges inside. When detonated, the explosives quickly turn into a gas that pressurizes the hole, making the rock swell and ultimately break apart. Once the rock is loose, it is easier for workers to dig.
“It’s kind of like having a really nice suitcase at the airport and having it searched,” he said. “You don’t have time to put everything back the way you packed it.”
Backes is part of a two-man blasting team working on the East Broadway project. As powder man, Backes is in charge of putting the appropriate amount of ammonia nitrate into each hole. His co-worker drills the holes.
“The physical part is lifting the explosives,” Backes said. “Mentally, it’s 1,000 pounds of dynamite; you have to take extra precautions.”
One hazard stems from Backes’ use of electric blasting caps, tools used for initiating detonation of explosives by means of electric current. The use of electric blasting caps requires drivers to turn off all cell phones and two-way radios when driving through the blasting area.
“If we’re using electric caps, there’s a potential to initiate the blast before I’m ready,” Backes said. “The probabilities are one in a million, but it only takes one time. It’s just a safety precaution.”
Worsey said this requirement dates back to when semi-truck drivers commonly used band radios. The electric detonators can act as antennas for radio waves in the air, allowing transmissions from CB radios to be picked up and to set off the explosives. There are few instances of explosives going off before blasters were ready.
Yeargin said the contractor is working to get the East Broadway project done as quickly and safely as possible. He said East Broadway will become more difficult for travel as construction progresses and encouraged drivers to take alternate routes.