Comment – The What and the Why…

In less than a month, the industry will pause once again to reflect on the loss of four of their demolition brothers in what still ranks as the worst demolition accident in living memory. It will be the fourth time the industry has done so since the catastrophic collapse of the boiler house at Didcot Power Station killed Michael Collings, John Shaw, Kenneth Cresswell, and Christopher Huxtable,

In all likelihood – based on previous experience – the Health and Safety Executive and/or Thames Valley Police will issue a well-intentioned statement between now and then. That statement will say nothing; it will resolve even less. It will provide the industry with no insight into the precise cause of the accident. Moreover, it will provide no respite for the families of the four men that perished in the accident and for whom closure remains a distant dream that lies – out of reach – beyond the living nightmare they continue to endure.

In the 1,437 days (at the time of writing) since the accident, I have complained about the lack of progress in the HSE investigation so many times that I am now bored with the sound of my own voice. Late last year, the Unite union expressed its frustration at the pace of the investigation. Despite the enormous dignity the families of the four men have shown publicly, I am sure they are frustrated that they cannot tell their side of the story for fear of prejudicing any legal proceedings that might follow the investigation.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

On 1 August last year, the scaffolding at a major demolition site in Reading collapsed and spilled out into the street. Three people were injured. Thankfully, no-one was killed. That was 181 days ago (at the time of writing). Yet earlier this week, the Health and Safety Executive released a statement that said the cause of the scaffold collapse was “structural failure” and that an investigation was ongoing.

Now admittedly, structural failure is a largely meaningless catch-all term that simultaneously says something and says nothing. Demolition men and women across the country will have greeted the HSE pronouncement with a cry of “no shit, Sherlock”. The statement gives no indication of what caused the structural failure. We still don’t know if this was caused by issues of integrity within the structure; a problem with the demolition methodology; or if it was caused by human error. The statement does not attempt to incriminate or to appoint blame.

Instead, the statement carefully and deliberately separates the what from the why and the who. In doing so, it proves that it IS possible to discuss an accident even while an investigation is ongoing.

Of course, if such an approach were applied to the case of the Didcot disaster, the tragic events at Longannet, Redcar and Great Yarmouth last year, or to the three further scaffold collapses that followed in quick succession after the Reading incident, we would need more than just “structural failure”.

But with its interim statement on the Reading scaffold collapse, the HSE – possibly bowing to pressure from the Unite union – has demonstrated that not all discussion of an ongoing investigation is potentially prejudicial; that it IS possible to glean important information from an investigation without pointing an accusatory finger in any specific direction.

For all my criticism of the pace at which the Health and Safety Executive operates, this is surely a step in the right direction. In the event of an accident or a fatality, the most important thing to ascertain is what caused it so that lessons might be learned. Reprisals, recriminations and prosecutions together with the why, the who and the how can wait.

All that being said, the 1,437 days taken so far on the Didcot disaster investigation – equivalent to one year for each of the four men killed and with no end in sight – is still far too long. Any lessons the industry might have learned remain bound tightly in red tape and bureaucracy, potentially placing the demolition sector at risk.

That, simply, is unacceptable.