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Comment – Enforce AND Endorse…

The relationship between the HSE and the demolition industry should be a two-way street.

During my time as the publicity officer of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors, I was the co-author of no less than four sets of industry guidance notes. I was co-author on both the original and the updated edition of the guidance notes on the safe use of high reach excavators; on the guidance on the safe use of mobile crushers in a demolition environment; and on the guidance on the deconstruction of tower blocks, or the top-down guidance as most people now know it.

Each time we produced a new set of guidance notes, they were shared with the Health and Safety Executive prior to publication. And each time, the response was exactly the same.

The HSE thanked the NFDC for their time, effort, investment and diligence. They welcomed each new publication as a significant contribution to safety in the demolition arena. They gave each new publication an unequivocal thumbs-up. And then they flatly refused to endorse all of them.

The relationship between the demolition industry and the Health and Safety Executive has always been a little fractious. And – traditionally, at least – with good reason.

In years gone by, the demolition industry had proved itself to be a dangerous place in which to work. Accidents were frequent, and fatalities were far too common. The industry of old thoroughly deserved to be high on the HSE watch-list.

But times have changed. With one or two notable exceptions, the UK demolition industry’s health and safety track record continues to improve year-on-year. Accident levels generally fall with each passing year. Fatalities are at an all-time low.

Compared to allied industries such as construction, refurbishment, and the waste and recycling sectors, demolition is a paragon of health and safety good practice. There was even talk a few years back about a policy of earned autonomy in which industries that demonstrated a true commitment to health and safety best practice would be inspected less and would be allowed to – partially, at least – police themselves.

That would have been great for the UK demolition industry which has clearly demonstrated just such a commitment. It would have been great for the HSE which has seen inspector numbers in seemingly terminal decline.

And then came the Fee for Intervention. Suddenly, a visit to a demolition site provided the HSE with the ability to generate some much-needed revenue. And rather than becoming self-policing, demolition seemingly moved back to the top of the HSE’s hit-list.

Rather than a carrot and stick approach, the HSE seems to have eaten the carrot and adopted an all stick approach in which it would prefer to punish rather than encourage.

For decades, the UK demolition industry has put to shame the allied industries around it with its forward-thinking approach to the environment and to safety. It has put its money where its mouth is, creating training courses at all levels of the industry; backing those courses with competence cards; reinforcing that training with published guidance notes.

Now I am not suggesting for once second that the HSE should stop policing the UK demolition industry. Nor am I suggesting that a policy of earned autonomy would be a good idea for the whole demolition industry.

What I am saying is that when a demolition company goes above and beyond regulations to ensure the safety of its workforce and of those living or working around them, that their accomplishments should be recognised and applauded.

Ultimately what I am saying is that the relationship between the HSE and the UK demolition industry should be a two-way street.

And if the HSE wants to enforce, then surely it should also be willing to endorse.

An extended version of this article is available as an audio podcast that you can listen to here.

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