Time for demolition to “grow a pair”
The collapse of Swingate House in Stevenage highlights the need for a massive and urgent rethink of demolition methodologies and the way in which clients and principal contractors dictate and steer those processes.
I have been a vocal advocate for the sharing the details of near-misses, incidents and accidents. I fully endorse the initiative started by incumbent Institute of Demolition Engineers’ president Richard Dolman to share those details as widely as we currently share best practice. And I am firmly of the belief that each incident, accident or even fatality is a potential learning opportunity.
At least I was. Because an incident in Hertfordshire last week now has me questioning the demolition sector’s ability and willingness to heed the lessons of the past and thereby avoid accidents in the future.
At just after 10 am on the morning of Tuesday 22 March, a building collapsed in the town of Stevenage. The incident spilled onto an adjacent road; propelled demolition into news headlines for all the wrong reasons; and dragged the sector’s image and reputation through the mud yet again.
If this were an isolated incident, it would have been embarrassing as well as potentially deadly. But it was NOT an isolated incident. In fact, it was oddly reminiscent of a series of three high-profile collapses in Reading, London and Nuneaton that occurred in quick succession in the summer of 2019. As the industry and the watching world looked to Stevenage, it became evident that the wider demolition industry had not learned the lessons of the past and that it was still using scaffolding in an application for which it was never designed.
Yet the blame and responsibility for this latest incident probably rests not with the demolition contractor, although subsequent HSE investigations might suggest otherwise. It almost certainly rests with a client and/or local authority that once again placed convenience above public safety.
Rather than closing a road that led to a shopping centre car park, it was decided that a scaffold would be erected in the vain hope that this would prevent an already flimsy structure toppling into the street. (If you’d care to see just how close that came to disaster, click here).
No-one would even consider keeping a road or motorway open while a bridge was demolished over it. Roads and railway lines are regularly closed to allow the explosive demolition of structures. And yet, trying to get a road closure in a town centre, even for just one weekend, is somehow viewed as a Sisyphean endeavour.
I can think of no other industry or occupation in which a company or a person is employed for their expertise experience and yet the methodology is then dictated by someone lacking both those vital traits.
Sadly, this latest in a procession of similar incidents leaves us at a crossroads and we now face a stark choice. The demolition industry can either wait for a major injury or fatality to occur, for the prolonged and protracted investigation that will surely follow, and for the outlawing of scaffolding in a demolition environment for everything other than access.
Or the industry can grow a pair. Stand its ground. Tell clients and local authorities that they will no longer keep roads open and fingers crossed because they cannot get a temporary road closure.
While we’re choosing, the lives of demolition workers, pedestrians and motorists hang in the balance.
Mark Anthony is the founder of DemolitionNews and the host of The Break Fast Show.