Comment – All deaths matter

TWO unconnected but deadly accidents. TWO industries with unanswered questions. NINE families left grieving. FOUR years and counting with no resolution. ONE organisation taking far too long.

On the afternoon of 23 February 2016, a part of the boiler house at the Didcot A Power Station in the ceremonial county of Oxfordshire collapsed, killing four demolition workers and injuring several more. With the remaining portion of that massive boiler house declared unstable, it would be another six months until the bodies of three of those men – Ken Cresswell, John Shaw, and Christopher Huxtable would be recovered from the tangle of twisted steel.

On 7 July 2016, even as the search for the remains of the fallen demolition workers continued almost 90 miles to the south, a second industrial accident claimed the lives of five men at a recycling plant in Nechells, Birmingham. Almamo Jammeh, Ousmane Diaby, Bangally Dukureh, Saibo Sillah and Mahamadou Jagana were killed when a 3.6 metre concrete wall collapsed on them.

Aside from the fact that the second accident took place in Birmingham, the city that is home to the company involved in the Didcot disaster, these two accidents are seemingly unconnected. Unconnected, aside from the fact that – four and a half and four years respectively – both accidents remain unresolved.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigators continue to sift through almost 1,000 tonnes of mangled steel recovered from the collapsed power station boiler house in the hope of finding the true cause of this tragic accident. Police officers involved in the Didcot investigation report that they have carried out 1,921 witness interviews. But having waited more than six months for the bodies of their loved ones to be recovered, the families of Cresswell, Shaw, Collings, and Huxtable continue to wait for answers.

That wait, that lack of closure, is all too familiar to the families of Almamo Jammeh, Ousmane Diaby, Bangally Dukureh, Saibo Sillah and Mahamadou Jagana who gathered at the gates of the Shredmet recycling plant late last week to mark the fourth anniversary of the passing of their loved ones.

At the inquest into their deaths in November 2018, the risk of the wall falling was described by the HSE as “foreseeable”. “The wall was overloaded and not safe,” said HSE expert Martyn Ostcliffe. “In my view it could have gone at any time.”

A jury returned an accidental death verdict. To date, there has been no criminal hearing. A spokesman for the HSE said it had been carrying out a thorough criminal investigation since the deaths and following up new lines of inquiry after the inquest, which meant the investigation had taken longer than hoped.

“Never did we think we’d be here four years later as this is the UK,” said Manka Sawo, who helped organise the Nechells protest.

That is a sentiment that will ring painfully true for the families of the four men killed in the Didcot collapse who similarly continue to wait.

The reasons for carrying out a thorough investigation in the aftermath of an industrial accident are manifold. There is, of course, a desire to establish the precise cause and to use that information to help ensure that an accident of this nature does not occur in the future. Such findings can be used to amend or fundamentally change current industrial methodologies and work practices to avoid a repeat of the tragedy. Those findings can be used as a learning opportunity and as a training aid. And there is a hope that establishing the precise cause and nature of the accident might provide bereaved families with some closure.

But ultimately – and increasingly – these investigations are carried out to establish accountability.

We live in a litigious age in which the mantra of “where there’s blame, there’s a claim” is seemingly a key driver.

With the dust from the collapse still in the air on that cold February morning, the site of the Didcot collapse was placed immediately in an impenetrable state of lockdown; partly because the remaining portion of the boiler house was considered unstable; and partly – I suspect – through a need to safeguard forensic evidence in what was instinctively viewed as a crime scene; a crime scene with four known victims and possibly one or more unknown perpetrators.

The families of the five men killed at the Shredmet facility claimed last week that they had been treated differently because of their heritage. “We are five black families, from Gambia and Senegal; it is as if our lives do not matter. Our lives do matter.”

Such a claim is quite clearly untrue. The families of the four demolition workers killed at Didcot have been waiting almost half a year longer for resolution, apparently (and equally) with no immediate end in sight.

Yet no-one could blame the families of the five men killed in Nechells for invoking the Black Lives Matter movement in an attempt to secure justice for their loved ones. According to the inquest, the men received “devastating blunt-force injuries” and had to be identified by their fingerprints after a wall and a mountain of metal weighing “the equivalent of 15 double-decker buses” collapsed onto them.

Those families are owed justice, just as the families of Ken Cresswell, John Shaw, Michael Collings, and Christopher Huxtable are owed justice.

This is not a matter of Black Lives Matter. It is not a mater of White Lives Matter. It is not even a case of All Lives Matter. In this instance, All Deaths Matter.