Opinion – A dangerous precedent

In February 2016, the boiler house of the Didcot A Power Station partially collapsed, claiming the lives of four demolition workers. The investigation into that incident remains ongoing.

In September 2019, two men were killed on a demolition site at Redcar in horrific circumstances. That investigation also remains ongoing.

On Thursday 29 September 2022, a demolition worker was killed on a site in Esher in Surrey. And there is now a very real possibility that his family, friends, loved ones and colleagues could be waiting until 2029 to find out how and why.

On the night of 23 February 2016, I was asked by Sky News to meet one of their reporters at the site of the Didcot A Power Station. I agreed with a single caveat – I would not comment on the actual cause of the boiler house collapse because no-one knew precisely what that cause had been. With that proviso in place, I set about doing my homework to ensure that I was prepared for my TV interview. And one of the key items contained within that homework was an admission from the Health and Safety Executive that it was (in 2016) taking as much as four years to investigate a fatal industrial accident.

Armed with that nugget of information, I confidently predicted that we would be unlikely to have any resolution to the Didcot Disaster much before 2020. It turns out I was at least two years wide of the mark.

The concern now is that Didcot has set a new precedent; that the expected four-year investigation period has now been extended to seven and – perhaps – beyond.

Even allowing for the two years lost to COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, the time taken to analyse the causes of the Didcot and Redcar fatalities is nothing short of a disgrace. And it is made worse by the knowledge that in the US – perhaps the UK demolition industry’s closest cousin – a fatal accident can be investigated and prosecuted in just six months.

On the sixth anniversary of the Didcot Disaster, I returned to the site for the final time and found it transformed. In fact, the road layout has altered so much that I initially got lost.

At the Teesworks site in Redcar where two men perished in September 2019, the local mayor has become a regular on local and national TV stations where he talks about giga-factories, freeport status and new jobs for the area.

The site in Esher where the demolition man tragically lost his life last week has already been reopened.

As I have been told countless times since the passing of my mother in January this year and my father in September, life goes on. It does. I am still here, and I am still functioning.

But for the families, friends and colleagues of those killed at Didcot, Redcar and Esher, that life is altered. The date of their passing will bring fresh grief and fresh anger that their deaths remain unexplained. The town of their passing will be forever tainted with painful memories.

And all of that is being wilfully exacerbated by an accident investigation process that is now so protracted overlong that the shock of the original accident is largely forgotten by the public and the industry long before any findings are revealed.

Despite these and other fatal accidents, I still firmly believe that the UK demolition is among the very best in the world. But based on these cases, I firmly believe that the protocols and regimes in place to police and manage the sector’s health and safety are now among the worst.