Comment – The slow-turning wheels of justice…

In a little under two weeks, the global demolition community will fall silent once again as it remembers the four of its brethren that lost their lives so needlessly and so tragically at the Didcot A Power Station back in February 2016.

This time last year, I was working on a commemorative article that attempted to capture the feelings of an industry still reeling two years on from the worst demolition accident in living memory. (You can find a copy of there here). But this year, there will be no repeat, no fresh outpouring of emotion because – to the untrained eye, at least – there has been precious little progress in the investigation surrounding the accident.

Of course, that isn’t the case. I have been called by the police at least four times in the past year. I know several people that have been questioned wither in person or over the telephone as the police gather yet more information on that tragic incident.

But three years on, there have been no prosecutions, no findings revealed and no blame appointed. Whilst I appreciate the sheer volume of the task facing the police and the Health and Safety Executive, three years is already too long to have waited. And that fact was brought into sharp focus this week by another demolition fatality at another UK power station.

Now you might recall that, in the immediate aftermath of the Didcot disaster, the National Federation of Demolition Contractors offered assurances that it would produce new guidance on the demolition of power stations just as soon as the Health & Safety Executive released its findings.

The fact that that new guidance does not yet exist is no fault of the NFDC. Far from it. The Federation cannot be seen to be pre-empting any findings or prosecutions by producing such a publication before the Didcot case comes to court. And so, along with the rest of the demolition fraternity, the Federation is forced to sit and wait.

And while that wait goes on, another of its number has been killed in action on a power station contract.

It is interesting (and by interesting I mean tragically ironic) to note that the contractors involved in these power station fatalities were both what I would describe as premier league companies. And while Coleman & Company faced criticism over the fact that Didcot was its first ever power station contract, no such accusations can be levelled at Brown and Mason, the company working at Longannet Power Station in Scotland where a worker died this past week. Brown and Mason is widely regarded as THE company for power station demolition. It has demolished more than just about anyone and has an exemplary record in doing so. The fact that it has now suffered a power station fatality merely serves to underline the complex, challenging and hazardous nature of this line of work.

There is a phrase that is a basic tenet of all demolition training; a two-word phrase that underpins every industry training course, every risk assessment, method statement and every toolbox talk. That phrase is “what if”. What if you encounter asbestos? What if you see a hazard? What if you see someone undertaking a task for which they’re not adequately competent?

So what if “what if” was applied to the latest power station fatality? What if the Health and Safety Executive had presented its findings in a more timely fashion? What if the global demolition industry embraced those findings and adopted its recommendations in its working methods while carrying out power station demolition works. What if the NFDC had produced its power station guidance notes? What if the National Demolition Training Group had produced a new training course aimed squarely at addressing the very specific challenges of working in a power station environment? And what if Brown and Mason – a proud NFDC member – had been issued with those guidance notes and had subsequently sent its men on that new training course?

Such speculation is, I realise, pie in the sky. At the time of writing, we do not yet know the cause of death for the man killed at Longannet. We don’t even know his name yet. In all likelihood, Longannet is very different to Didcot. The methodologies employed by Brown and Mason and Coleman & Company are likely different too. Each demolition project is as unique as the companies and the individuals carrying it out. So the likelihood that a discovery made about the cause of the Didcot disaster might have saved the life of the man at Longannet is extreme to say the least.

But if there was even the slightest chance that a lesson learned at Didcot might have been applied at Longannet to save that one man’s life, I am sure it is a chance that the man’s family, friends and colleagues would seize.

In the usual course of Health and Safety Executive investigations, it is not unusual for the HSE to issue a prohibition notice and to demand that something potentially hazardous is rectified before work is allowed to proceed. And rightly so.

But by taking – to date – three years to pore over the admittedly mountainous pile of evidence gathered at Didcot A Power Station without presenting its findings, the HSE is exposing to risk the hundreds or even thousands of men and women currently working on the demolition of the world’s ageing and redundant power station stock.

It is a truism that the wheels of justice turn very slowly. But if there is even the slightest chance that those slow turning wheels might have led to the death of another demolition man, then surely SURELY it is time that the system was changed?