Comment – So what IS the answer..?

The UK demolition industry has reached a crossroads.

An industry friend and sparring partner has recently read my somewhat controversial article “where’s your fury” in which I lambasted the wider demolition industry for its ongoing failure to address accidents and curtail fatalities. Having read the article in question, that friend asked me – simply – OK, so what is the answer?

My answer is somewhat contradictory in that I am NOT a demolition expert. I am not even a demolition professional. My views and opinions are merely those of an interested bystander and a concerned onlooker. That being said, with industry bigwigs remaining tight-lipped over recent accidents and fatalities, who else is going to offer answers? So I offer my thoughts and opinions in the knowledge that they can and probably will be dismissed as the ramblings of an ignorant outsider or a thinly-veiled attempt to attract more readers by upsetting the industry apple-cart once again.

Short Term

1. A client – ideally a major one – needs to be prosecuted for their role in a demolition accident. Under CDM Regs (and, perhaps more so, morally) clients are required to provide the demolition contractor with the information required to do their job effectively. They are required to select a contractor of proven competence. And they are required to give the chosen demolition contractor the time in which to carry out its work safely. All too often, one or all of these things does not happen. And yet, when things go pear-shaped, it is the demolition contractor that is left to carry the can. That is, quite simply, unacceptable. And all of it could be addressed with greater contractual transparency. Clients should be required to publish details of the bids received for a demolition contract and they should be required to explain why they have chosen one demolition contractor over several others. If the answer to that question is just lowest cost price, further questions need to be raised. Furthermore, the time allowed to carry out the demolition works, once agreed, should be sacrosanct, not whittled down to suit the client or to satisfy some “value engineering” drive. Demolition is a skill and a discipline just like any other aspect of the construction and civil engineering process and it should, therefore, be afforded sufficient time. Any client representative attempting to reduce demolition timescales should be reported and held accountable. Anyone uttering the sentence “you need to hurry up, the piling contractor arrives tomorrow” should be fired on the spot.
2. Details of ALL reportable incidents should be made public and should be stored on a central hub that is accessible to everyone including clients, stakeholders, and the general public. Furthermore, ALL stakeholders should be required to present their interim findings of the likely cause of that accident within a specific timeframe of – say – one month WITHOUT prejudicing any possible prosecution that might follow.

Medium Term

1. A root and branch review of industry training and its delivery is now long overdue. We have a plethora of cards that are supposed to prove competence and yet we have a growing list of incidents, accidents and fatalities that strongly suggest otherwise. That root and branch review should look deeply into the need for experience and take training out of the classroom and onto sites. When you learn to drive, you do so in a real car. When you learn to fly, you are required to support classroom/simulator training with real flight time. Demolition is not just a skill that is difficult to explain and to teach, it is a discipline that needs to be experienced first-hand in an environment in which the risks are real and not words in a text book or computer-generated. In addition, we should utilise one of the industry’s greatest assets and resources – The demolition men (and women) that are now nearing or who have reached retirement age. It is a bizarre analogy to draw but look at football. Just about every premiership manager is a former player, often one that has been very successful. Upon their retirement, they become managers because they have often learned from the very best themselves; and because, having enjoyed success themselves, they come ready-equipped with both experience and – just as importantly – respect.
2. Sticking with the subject of training, the demolition industry needs to draw from a richer well of employees if it is to prosper. For far too long, the industry has drawn from a pool of employees that have been overlooked (or avoided) by other industry sectors and employers. The construction industry in general and the civil engineering sector in particular has become a fertile ground for well-educated and highly intelligent young people. Demolition, which works hand-in-glove with those sectors, continues to employ those that quit school at 14, struggle to read and write, and whom are destined for a career as a “follower”. Only when the industry employs more leaders than followers will we see a change in the rate of accidents.
3. I have said it so many times that I am now starting to bore myself. But the Health and Safety Executive (a) needs to publish its findings more quickly and (b) should be held accountable if it does not. The HSE has at its disposal a veritable library of potential learning opportunities, but it is buried beneath a mountain of bureaucracy that is itself placing men and women at risk. The protracted and needlessly prolonged investigation into the boiler house collapse at Didcot A Power Station MUST be a turning point. Other power stations are being demolished here in the UK and overseas as we speak. The HSE’s failure to present even preliminary findings in more than three and a half years is a disgrace. And if, God forbid, there is another boiler house collapse, then the HSE’s failure to share potentially vital information in a timely manner should surely be called into question.

Longer Term

1. It is my personal belief that we have now reached an impasse; a tipping point that has the potential to redress the demolition landscape once and for all; a crossroads When the findings from Didcot, Longannet, Redcar and Great Yarmouth are made public; when the causes of the numerous scaffold collapses are published; and when the Competition and Markets Authority are done delving through the dustbins of the six unnamed contractors suspected of collusion, surely the time has now come for demolition contractors to be licensed? We have licenses for asbestos contractors – perhaps demolition’s closest cousins – because their work is considered hazardous. A license is required to run a waste management business for the same reason. And both those licenses can be revoked if the license holder is found wanting in some way. I will accept that the NFDC Accredited Site Audit Scheme was a step in the right direction. But the NFDC represents only a quarter of the UK’s demolition contractors; and one or two audits per year of companies that might have 15 or more live sites at any given moment is hardly all-encompassing. Furthermore, the fact that the NFDC member company gets to select the site(s) to be audited surely calls into question the validity and credibility of any audit pass. Only unannounced inspections – like those conducted by the HSE – can find out what is really going on behind site hoardings across the country.

I am sure that there are many out there that would like to add their own suggestions about how the industry might bounce back from its recent run or incidents, accidents and tragedies. And we’d love to hear your thoughts via email: