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Explosives engineering: Is it as dangerous as it sounds?

Explosives engineering: Is it as dangerous as it sounds?

Across the diverse field of engineering, there’s a discipline for nearly every skill set and work style. For Travis Davidsavor, a geotechnical engineer with Barr Engineering Co., the path to becoming a “geotech” and an explosives engineer was a journey of self-discovery. Here, Travis shares how he found his career path, where it has taken him so far, and why the adventure keeps unfolding with Barr. 

When you started your post-secondary education, did you plan to become a geotechnical engineer?  

I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Michigan Tech. Originally, I wanted to become an airport engineer, and Michigan Tech was one of the few institutions that offered airport engineering courses to undergraduates.  

After I started taking classes studying transportation, I realized something: “This is really boring to me.” There’s a narrow range of options to design an airport, as the design is based on well-established code, and I wanted to move into an area that required more investigation and an opportunity for more than one prescribed solution. 

I was pulled into geotechnical engineering by faculty (Dr. Stan Vitton, a new Barr employee), and this field called to me because there isn’t one answer, there are many answers—and no two projects are the same. Our field is all about understanding what we don’t see: identifying, communicating, and managing risk, along with designing something well enough so it does not fail. 

What is it like to work as a geotechnical engineer? 

A lot of engineering disciplines can do things in “paper space” (electronically, often in an office), but geotechs work in “physical” space and need to go into the field to literally “dig in.” We work with soil, rock, and water, and we’re often the only people working on-site on a project at the design level. 

I’ve learned that while structural engineers are often very precise and measure things in ounces and thousandths of an inch, geotechs are the converse of this. We measure in fractions of a foot, to the nearest pound, and generally thrive in the face of uncertainty, embracing whatever we find and determining what needs to be done to accommodate the conditions we encounter. We are the branch of civil engineering that really takes what we are given and, only being allowed to make slight modifications, work with it. 

How did you get involved in explosives engineering? Is it as dangerous as it sounds? 

My work as a geotech led me to study rock excavation, and, in turn, explosives engineering. Fundamentally, this is turning big rocks into little rocks so we can either move them and make something out of them, or create space to make something in. Blasting is unique in that it’s a combination of experience, skill, art, and science. I benefited from working around some excellent blasting and explosives engineers, essentially by immersing myself with those who do it well. 

When you’re working on a blasting project, it’s one of the safest places you can be.

Every time people think about blasting and explosives, they think about risk, which to most would be perceived as an elevated risk. Fortunately, this is a misconception. When you’re working on a blasting project, it’s one of the safest places you can be. It’s regimented and orderly—that’s the law and the culture. 

I do a lot of blast-design consulting, to help control vibrations, prevent flyrock, and improve ground movement and fragmentation. We don’t want anything flying off the site. With a great blast, you don’t even know it happened. 

I’m on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Explosives Engineers, and every year, we assemble the world’s collective knowledge about explosives engineering in one room. It’s not a huge community, and everyone is thoughtful and committed to sharing best practices. Everyone wants what’s best, so we come together to train and help make projects safer in general. This underlying goal brings people together. 

You’re now established and sought-after as a blasting engineer. How did you get started, and what kinds of projects do you do? 

I was fortunate enough to be an intern at Barr right after my freshman year of college and was an intern for Barr throughout graduate school. After grad school, I went to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository as a geotechnical and blasting engineer. After a couple of years in Nevada, I moved to Duluth to work as a traditional geotechnical engineer, working mostly for Barr! I chose to return to work at Barr in 2008 because I knew it was a fantastic company. When I was an intern, there were four or five geotechnical engineers, and now there are more than 80 of us. 

As a young engineer at Barr, I was able to work with the best of the best: a team that is flexible and adaptive.

As a young engineer at Barr, I was able to work with the best of the best: a team that is flexible and adaptive. Through practical, hands-on experience and learning from the experts, I developed my own expertise and began working on crazy-cool projects. They included a waterpark ride at Universal Studios, a recreational waterskiing lake, a beet sugar plant in southern Minnesota, a wind project in Somerset, Pennsylvania, the world-famous NOvA project in northern Minnesota, and several pipeline projects and mining projects. 

Here’s an example of the kinds of problems you work to solve in this field: We were consulting on a blasting project adjacent to a medical facility. We had to deliver a blast-migration mitigation design that would bring vibrations down to ensure we weren’t impacting the medical facility’s surgical equipment. 

Another cool project took place at the Scranton Pit at Hibbing Taconite in northern Minnesota, where we took down a massive hematite overhang that was dropping rocks into the mine pit, threatening pumping equipment.  We blasted off a massive chunk of rock, but first, we tied off the drill rig and tied people to anchor bars well outside the work area. They did their work on tethers in case the ground collapsed beneath them (it didn’t). The project was a huge success and everything worked perfectly.  

What has surprised you about your career path? 

When I was a student, I despised writing but loved math, science, and physics. However, I’ve had to embrace technical writing and do it as part of (and now most of) my job. I’ve come to learn that in my field, we’re written, oral, and visual communicators of risk, and what we are communicating most people do not understand. 

We see conditions and find challenges in the subsurface, and then we need to explain what we’re seeing and how it affects a project in design and construction, as well as operation. I often spend a good chunk of my day writing. We articulate risks so that our clients, as well contractors, regulators, permitters, and other engineers, can design around these risks. 

Do you ever get bored? 

I don’t get bored. There’s never a lack of exciting things happening and there simply is no monotony—it’s buckle up, here we go! 

I’ve been around Barr for over 24 years, and I’ve seen and done some crazy-fun stuff. When we assemble people at Barr, it never ceases to amaze me what we can tackle together. 

Barr is a place that lets us guide and choose our own destiny. We’re never painted into a corner, never told to stay in a box. We work with amazing people and good clients, on amazing projects. 

Now that you are one of the seasoned pros, what advice do you offer to people who are new to the field? 

Find mentors—really great people who want to mentor and develop staff—but be prepared to go the extra mile. You will only truly gain if you roll up your sleeves and dive in. 

Also, ask questions and step up. If you put in a little bit more, you will get back a ton more. Always push; you’ll get so much more out of your career if you’re fully engaged! 

Interested in joining the Barr team? Check out our open positions.

About the author

Travis Davidsavor, vice president, senior geotechnical and blasting engineer, serves as project manager or technical advisor for challenging geotechnical, pipeline, mining, and transportation projects. His areas of expertise include geotechnical design and investigations, field exploration and advanced in-situ testing, rock blasting and excavation, rock highwall-stability evaluation, rock foundations, trenchless utility design and installation, slope stability evaluation and mitigation, and instrumentation and monitoring. Travis also has experience with containment systems utilizing natural and synthetic materials. He is a member of the International Society of Explosives Engineers (ISEE) Urban Blasting Committee; in 2017, he received the ISEE’s President’s Award, which recognizes members who have dedicated their time and talents to the organization. Travis is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Civil Engineering Department, where he teaches advanced geotechnical design.

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