Comment – New Year hangover…

Instead of a fresh start, demolition starts the New Year still wreaking of 2019.

It landed like a gift-wrapped dog turd; an explosive reality check timed to ensure that anyone thinking we could leave the tragic events of last year beneath the 2019 rug would need to think again.

On Christmas Eve, the UK’s largest union – Unite – called for immediate improvements to health and safety standards within the demolition sector following what it described as a “horrendous year”. Calling upon the Health and Safety Executive to investigate the plethora of accidents and incidents experienced by the industry during 2019, Unite also said it will be pressuring enforcement agencies and employers to step up their efforts to safeguard demolition workers.

This unprecedented statement comes in the wake of a year in which the demolition sector suffered four high profile fatalities together with four very public scaffold collapses in quick succession. Unite also pointed to incomplete or unsatisfactory investigations into the tragedies at Didcot, Oxford, involving Coleman and Company, in which four men died in 2016 after a disused power station collapsed; and the 2014 death of man who was crushed after a digger fell through the a concrete slab that was being demolished by McGee in Grosvenor Square, London.

“As we approach 2020, Unite demands to know what the industry and enforcement agencies are going to do to address these incidents and ensure next year is a safe year for demolition workers,” the union says.

In an instant, the demolition sector found itself outflanked, out-of-step and massively outgunned. As usual, the industry treated the four fatalities and the series of scaffold collapses with a practiced silence, choosing to ignore the elephant in the room even while that elephant was taking a shit on the carpet. The Unite union clearly has no time nor patience for that approach. It has instead trumpeted the elephant’s presence across the national media; and that could cost the industry dearly in the long run.

The UK demolition industry comprises less than 550 contractors. Unite has more than 1.2 million members. The demolition hierarchy might speak to the HSE on a regular basis, but Unite has sufficient clout to make it sit up and take notice. Unite also has the ear of government. So while the NFDC recently offered its members assurances that the HSE was not considering any form of licensing, it had reckoned without the interjection by the UK’s largest union. The fact that the Unite press statement mentions the HSE and enforcement agencies as separate entities surely suggests that it supports some other form of enforcement.

In truth, the implementation of a licensing scheme – similar to that operated in both the asbestos and waste sectors – is gaining support from the demolition industry itself. Many believe that the possible revocation of a license would prove to be the ultimate deterrent to less scrupulous operators while ensuring a single standard for the entire industry. I have said it before and I shall say it again: The only people that need worry about the licensing of demolition are those contractors that would be incapable of achieving the criterion; and those that fear their perceived power base might be diminished. Neither of those outcomes would be a bad thing.

And so, the UK demolition industry finds itself starting the New Year and the New Decade being taken to task by the country’s largest union; still under investigation for alleged collusion; still under investigation over four site deaths; and still under investigation over four scaffold collapses.

Many – myself included – would have hoped that we might all start the New Year with a clean slate and ready to put in place some New Year’s Resolutions. Instead, we look set to start 2020 with a sizeable and very public hangover.