Comment – An industry tarnished

Millions of man hours without incident. But the public will know us for this.

All the meetings, seminars and conferences. All the training courses, CPD points, toolbox talks and site inductions. All the advances in equipment and technology. All the supposed benefits of site audits and Health & Safety Executive policing. All the strides made to make demolition sites safer, cleaner and generally better. All the demolition projects and man hours clocked up without incident.

All of that and so much more, gone in an instant.

When the scaffolding collapsed at a demolition site in Reading yesterday morning, it wasn’t just steel and timber that fell. It was the reputation of the entire industry. A reputation that so many work so hard and for so long to build and to protect, tarnished in an instant.

There can be few industries in the world that are cursed with such an unerring knack of taking three steps forward before turning round and kicking itself squarely, brutally and repeatedly in the balls. If the global demolition industry had a mantra, it would be “proud, proud, proud, proud, embarrassed, proud, proud, proud, ashamed, proud, proud…”

The demolition community responds with dismay and outrage when Channel 5 has the temerity to run a television programme entitled “When Demolition Goes Wrong”. Yet that same demolition community seems intent on providing a bottomless source of grist for the TV producers’ mill.

At the time of writing, there has been a stony silence from the various contractors and sub-contractors that will have had a stake in the contract. The silence has been equally deafening from the trade associations allied to this industry of ours.

Both the Health & Safety Executive and Thames Valley Police issued statements while the sirens were still blaring and while there were still fears that pedestrians might be trapped beneath the tangled mess of fallen scaffolding. Their silence begins now.

As we saw in the aftermath of the Didcot A Power Station tragedy, this whole sorry business will now be placed in the health and safety equivalent of Room 101 before being placed on public display for the world to see as part of a court case and prosecution in four, five or ten years’ time or when the HSE sees fit, whichever is the sooner.

Air travel is said to be the safest mode of transport, yet we can each point to a plane crash or disaster that seemingly disproves that claim. The demolition industry today is safer than at any time in its history. But the public – and that public, let us not forget, includes potential and existing clients – will point to yesterday’s collapse in Reading as further evidence that demolition is as hazardous, risky and downright dangerous as it ever was.

And so continues the endless and vicious circle that follows each accident and incident. It is a circle that will remain unbroken so long as the industry is willing to stand idly by and have its reputation hauled through the mud every few months.

There are alternatives, of course. UK demolition contractors could be licensed and those that are involved in incidents such as this could have their licenses suspended temporarily while investigations continue, and revoked entirely if they are found negligent. Those same demolition contractors could be censured by the trade bodies that sit atop this industry of ours. Memberships could be temporarily revoked; and prompt and meaningful statements on the likely cause of any such incident could be demanded.

None of this will happen, of course. Thanks to a Health & Safety Executive investigation regime that works with all the haste of coastal erosion, this and other incidents will be placed in Room 101 and largely forgotten about. The mass media will have moved on by early next week; sooner if new Prime Minister Boris Johnson does or says anything stupid between now and then. The demolition industry will go back to work, thankful that the incident didn’t happen on their site.

So at some point in the next few weeks, few months or few years, we will all find ourselves back here once again. Another accident will have happened. Explanations will not be forthcoming. Censure and punishment will take years. And all the while, the demolition industry will return to its mantra: “proud, proud, proud, proud, embarrassed, proud, proud, proud, ashamed…”