Comment – What the Hell happened to us…?

Several years ago, I was visiting a demolition site in the south of England. It was a large site; large enough to warrant a dedicated on-site canteen. After a morning touring the site, the managing director of the demolition company involved (who shall remain nameless) and I adjourned to said canteen, both of us craving what I believe to be the demolition industry’s national dish: a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea.

We queued at the counter along with the demolition workers on their lunch break. The man in front of us ordered a salad. Not a meat salad; not a cheese or egg salad. Just a salad. (It is worth noting at this point that the man in question was roughly the size of a brick out-house and looked like he specialised in eating the things that eat salad). The managing director and I exchanged a glance but said nothing.

We ordered our bacon sarnies and while the MD was putting the third or fourth spoonful of sugar into his tea, another demolition worker placed his order: “Do you have a green tea?”

As we walked to our table, the company MD turned to me and with a look that balanced disappointment, amazement and disdain said: “What the Hell happened to this industry?” (He didn’t use the word Hell, actually. He was a little more forceful than that).

Now of course, Mr Salad may have been on a diet; or he may have had a health condition. And Mr Green Tea might just like the taste of green tea.

But that brief exchange encapsulated the changing face of the UK demolition industry. What was once a rough, tough sector manned (and I use that term advisedly) by rough, tough and hairy-arsed individuals now has a softer edge. It is as if the industry as a whole held a secret meeting and agreed “en masse” to get in touch with its feminine side.

Now, before we go any further, let me be clear. I am all for progress and professionalism. And before the keyboard warriors converge, let me remind you that I am a vocal advocate for welcoming workers from ethnic minorities (why there is not an ethnic minority-led demolition company yet is a constant mystery to me). I have spoken countless times about how the industry needs to embrace those from the LGBTQ community if it is to ever achieve true equality and professionalism. And I also believe that we could largely cure the skills shortage across demolition and construction if we could all just get over the fact that half the world has boobs and ovaries.

I also accept that what I am about to say may come across as me entering my “Angry of Epsom” time of life in which I hark on constantly about how good the good ol’ days really were.

Right, having clarified all of that, let me begin. The demolition industry has, in the space of just a few decades, gone from rough and tough to mollycoddled. There are aspects of the industry today that would make the founding fathers of the sector shake their heads in disbelief or throw up their hands in astonishment.

Previous generations went to work in cloth caps, donkey jackets and everyday shoes. They smoked, drank and ate greasy (delicious) food. They worked at great heights without harnesses. They worked in the sun, the wind, the snow and the rain. The machines they drove often had no cabs and the seat within was a wooden bench. They went to work to earn money for their families, generally without complaint.

Compare that to the industry of today in all its PPE-wearing, hydration-conscious, salad-eating, sunscreen-obsessed and vanilla-vaping glory.

We have gone from a labour force that lived or (occasionally) died by its own actions to a labour force that arrives for work expecting to be greeted with bottles of water, access to sunscreen lotion; that will take two weeks off work for a grazed elbow; that treats even the slightest work-time incident as a direct threat to their mental health. (Note to the perpetually outraged and the professionally offended: I have spoken openly my own mental health issues for years now, so step away from the keyboard).

100-odd years ago, young men gave their lives for king and country at the Battle of the Somme. If that battle were repeated today, most young people would run in the opposite direction. Those that remained would complain about the mud, the noise and how all that shouting and screaming was making them feel uncomfortable.

Do I have a point with all this? Well, sort of. If concerns over hydration, sunscreen and mental health have come about because demolition firms are eager to take care of their greatest asset, then great. Hats off and more power to them.
If, however, all those factors (and countless more besides) have been put in place purely to tick a box on a client checklist, then we haven’t progressed. We have just allowed ourselves to go soft.

Right, while the founding fathers of the industry spin in their collective graves, anyone for salad and green tea?