Worthington Products: A Worldwide Leader in Waterway Barrier Technology
September 14, 2020
Paul Meeks, the president of Worthington Products, is on a mission. His company, Worthington Products, is so well known for its orange TUFFBOOM product line that many people overlook Worthington’s other high-density polyethylene (HDPE), steel, and custom-fabricated waterway barrier systems. Worthington is a multidisciplinary designer, manufacturer, and installer of waterway barrier systems made from steel, HDPE, or molded plastic, and Mr. Meeks wants people to know that. In this interview, he talks with Hydro Leader about the origins of Worthington Products and how it has grown into a worldwide leader in waterway barrier technology.
Hydro Leader: Please tell our readers about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Paul Meeks: I graduated from Ohio University in 1987, armed with degrees in international business and marketing. I never imagined, coming out of college, that I could marry my college degree with my passion for dams and the outdoors.
I have my first postcollege employer, Oiles America, to thank for introducing me to the dams industry. Oiles manufactures self-lubricating bearings and has its U.S. headquarters near Detroit, Michigan. I spent 5 years at Oiles focusing on the automotive stamping industry. Along the way, I got my first taste of hydro through a quarter-million-dollar project I sold to BC Hydro for its G.M. Shrum Generating Station. I had never been to a hydro plant, so I put on my best dark-blue power suit, white shirt, and red tie and headed west from Detroit to Vancouver, British Columbia. From there, I took a puddle jumper 500 miles north, over the Canadian Rockies. My face was plastered to the window as I flew over the most majestic mountain ranges I had ever seen. I said to myself, if this is where hydro installations are located, then this is for me! When I arrived in the small town where the power plant was located, I learned that there, suits are for Sunday services and funerals. I was completely out of place, especially when we went 17 stories below the dam to the scroll cage, which was dewatered at the time. There was no choice but to slosh around, looking at a disassembled turbine unit and seeing where the wicket gates and bearings would be placed. I loved every second of it.
Upon returning from that trip, I told the company’s president that I wanted us to start concentrating more on hydro. While Oiles is still around and is successful in the hydroelectric field, at that time, the leadership was more focused on the auto side of the business. I already had the hydro bug, so when the leadership said no, I decided it was time to move on. I contacted one of Oiles’s Germany-based competitors—another self-lubricated bearing manufacturer— by fax and brashly told them that they would not be successful until they had a U.S. presence. After I faxed them a second time, I received a reply saying that company personnel would be in Philadelphia the next week and inviting me to come meet with them. I flew to Philadelphia, rented the biggest, longest, newest white Cadillac I could find, and drove up to the hotel where three of their company directors were waiting. Within 30 minutes, I had convinced them of the need to establish a North American company.
I worked mostly with hydro companies in Canada and gained a lot of experience that solidified my passion for the industry. After setting up and leading this German company’s North American operations for 4 years, I launched Paul Meeks and Associates, a manufacturer’s agent representing suppliers to the hydro and dams industry.
One of my company’s first clients was a California company called RRS Industries. It had an odd-looking, 10‑foot-long orange plastic tube called TUFFLOAT that served as a floating boom to stop and collect floating debris on waterways. RRS’s primary focus was on municipal waste contracts for garbage cans and other higher-volume products. When I presented my knowledge of the hydro industry to the company owner, he saw it as an opportunity to expand his business in log and debris booms. TUFFLOAT was the first rotomolded log boom on the market, and it quickly developed a following.
Nevertheless, in May 2001, RRS informed me that the company had been experiencing financial difficulties, due in large part to the manner in which a new plant it was constructing had been financed. The owner wanted me to help him finance a new company, but after thinking about it, I politely declined. I knew his underlying interest would still be in municipal garbage-can contracts and that mine was in hydro. However, I also recognized that while the boom we had been selling was basically good, I could make it even better. At that point, I called the bankruptcy court to see how they were disposing of the company and whether I could buy the TUFFLOAT product line and all its tooling, licensing, and patents. I also recognized that there were outstanding contracts that could easily be fulfilled if I purchased the completed product inventory. I did that, and a few days later, I completed the purchase of the licensing and tooling aspects of the product, which was the beginning of Worthington Products. Today, we sell products in 63 countries and are recognized as the world’s leading manufacturer of waterway barriers, terrorist control barriers, fish guidance systems, and solutions related to public safety around dams.
Hydro Leader: What is Worthington Products’ product line today?
Paul Meeks: Most people recognize Worthington for our original TUFFBOOM product. But TUFFBOOM is only one of our products. It represents a small segment of our total business. Worthington concentrates on floating waterway barriers that prevent people, debris, or fish from going somewhere you don’t want them to go. Our range of products includes surface debris–control systems, fish guidance systems that keep migrating salmon out of turbines, and antiterrorist security barriers. We have a long-term contract with the French Navy to install high-profile, high-security antiterrorist barriers to stop boats from attacking their naval installations. We also have a large initiative related to public safety around dams, which involves barriers, booms, buoys, and even signage to keep people away from dams. Many deaths still occur around dam facilities each year—just to give you an example, over the 2 weeks prior to July 1, there were 7 deaths and 15 injuries at dam installations in the United States. People recreate around hydropower facilities without understanding the dangers related to them.
Hydro Leader: You mentioned that you have products in 63 different counties. Would you tell us a little more about your overseas activities?
Paul Meeks: We’ve participated in so many great projects worldwide that it’s difficult to single out just one or two. We recently completed a large project in the Republic of Malawi, where we custom-designed a complex floating-vegetation barrier system. Malawi’s power supply was shut down several years ago because massive floating islands of vegetation, mostly hyacinth, floated down the Shire River and blocked the primary intakes of the key hydroelectric generating stations that power the country. This problem reduced Malawi’s gross domestic product by about 25 percent. In response, the Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi launched a long-term project to upgrade several facilities. Initially, they simply wanted a small TUFFBOOM-style barrier to help control the floating hyacinth. The TUFFBOOM barrier worked, but it really was not suited for the massive amounts of vegetation that were flowing down this large river. In 2018, Worthington was contracted to design and supply a robust custom steel barrier supported by our BoatBuster-style floats. The $2.9 million project is doing the job it was designed to do.
Another exciting project is at the newly commissioned Xayaburi Dam in Laos. We made a massive head-pond debris deflection system and a tailrace and spillway safety system to keep fishermen out. Each head-pond unit is 20 feet long with 10‑foot-deep screens in front of it. They’re not only designed to deflect huge amounts of vegetation, but also the logs and trash that flow down this river. They deflectthe debris to large gates where it is passed downstream through spillway gates. Interestingly, the project owners also wanted a tailrace safety barrier. A lot of the developing nations we work with are not interested in public safety, only in debris control. That was not the case in Laos. That $3.2 million system was installed in fall 2019, and it’s working excellently.
Hydro Leader: Do you see a trend of increased awareness or concern for public safety in the hydropower industry?
Paul Meeks: There is increased awareness, but we have a ways to go, especially when we compare ourselves to countries like Canada. The numbers of injuries and deaths at our nation’s dams are still too high. We informally track annual incidents at U.S. dams. Over the last few years, the United States has had about 55 deaths annually, but when we take a closer look, we actually think the real number might be twice as high. It is imperative that the industry address the public-safety hazards of our dams. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is currently rewriting its guidelines for public safety around dams. The Canadian Dam Association has developed a robust public-safety program around dams, and my hope is that FERC is looking at the Canadian model. The Canadian model has not only dramatically cut public safety–related incidents, but it is fast becoming the worldwide standard.
More people die recreating around dams than they do from dam failures. Public safety around dams has always been considered part of the broader category of dam safety, but we believe it should be considered as an independent topic. It is something dam owners have a responsibility to pay attention to. That said, I do not support legislative mandates in this area. I think dam owners should enact safety measures based on guidance from FERC and leading best practices. If dam owners ignore or shortchange their public-safety efforts, then I believe legislators will step in and mandate a one-size-fits-all solution. All the same, I think the threat of lawsuits provides sufficient encouragement for electric utility managers to put public-safety measures in place. Litigation costs much more than a proper public-safety-around-dams program, which should include public-safety barriers, signage, and warning systems.
Hydro Leader: What are some basic measures that can be taken to increase public safety?
Paul Meeks: People need to be aware of the dangers at dams and in reservoirs. That starts with public outreach from the utility. Signage is a great starting point. However, if signage is not done properly, it is totally ineffective. Unfortunately, from what we have seen, hydroelectric utilities and dam owners in this country lack any guidance on signage, and there is currently no consistent standard for public-safety signage around dams. Recognizing this, we have decided to take action to educate dam owners about proper signage ourselves. We’re adamant about it, so much so that when a hydro owner on the Susquehanna River asked us to make signs for it and simply wanted to recreate its ineffective old signs, we declined. We did not want Worthington’s name associated with bad signage. If you are going to put a sign program in place, you should do it properly. In certain cases, booms or buoy systems are also warranted, but not in every case. It depends on the risk factors. Finally, you can also use audible signals, which is something we are not involved in, but which is another one of the top safety methods.
Hydro Leader: What other trends do you see in the hydro power sector?
Paul Meeks: As I mentioned, many people see Worthington as the TUFFBOOM folks. Our prominence in the market has increased the awareness of boom systems and has led to an increase in their use across the United States, Canada, and other countries. That increased the knowledge base and has led to exciting new developments, especially in the last 4 years or so.
One trend is the use of different materials. Most people know Worthington for its molded plastic booms, but we are material agnostic. We also manufacture HDPE-pipe and steel-pontoon boom systems. Molded booms are great for people on a budget or who simply want a boom to last 15–20 years. Customers who are looking for boom systems designed for up to 50 years should look at steel and especially HDPE booms. We recently introduced a thick-walled HDPE-style boom called ODINBoom. ODINBoom is designed for a life of up to 50 years, features a lifetime watertight design, and can be produced in any color using a proprietary production process. The outer colored layer will never peel, bubble, or delaminate.
Hydro Leader: What is your message to policymakers?
Paul Meeks: Hydro is a beautiful asset that provides so many economic, societal, and recreational benefits to our country. Hydro fits perfectly within our country’s mix of power options. My message to policymakers is simple: Support hydro as the great source of clean, renewable energy that it is.
Paul Meeks is the president of Worthington Products. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (330) 452‑7400.