Two nations divided by a single aim
How can the American authorities investigate, prosecute and close a fatal industrial accident in 17 months while, 63 months later, a UK investigation into a similar incident remains ongoing with no end in sight?
Take two power plant collapses. In one, two men are tragically killed. It would take a month — including Christmas and the New Year holidays — for the body of one of those men to be recovered from the rubble. That accident was investigated and the companies involved were cited and handed fines 17 months later.
In the other, four men are killed. The bodies of three of those men lay undiscovered and unrecovered for more than six months. An astonishing, embarrassing, frustrating and shameful 63 months later, no investigation has been concluded. No prosecutions have taken place. No closure has been afforded to the families of the four workers. And we still have no indication of precisely what led to the death of four innocent demolition workers.
What is the difference between these two incidents and their subsequent outcomes? Approximately 3,800 miles, some water, and the will of the accident investigators.
The first incident occurred at the Killen Power Plant in Ohio in the US back in December 2020. A 14-storey structure collapsed during demolition, claiming the lives of Doug Gray and Jamie Fitzgerald. Two companies have now been cited and, although one of the companies is contesting the ruling, fines have been handed down.
The second occurred at Didcot in the UK in February 2016. A part of the boiler house collapsed during demolition operations, claiming the lives of Michael Collings, Ken Cresswell, Christopher Huxtable and John Shaw. To date there has been no publication of the investigation findings; no blame or responsibility appointed; and no prosecution or legal retribution.
In the immediate aftermath of the Didcot disaster, and based upon the notoriously tardy Health and Safety Executive’s accident investigation protocols, I predicted that it would take four years for a prosecution to take place. I have been proven wildly and naively optimistic. We are at five years, three months and counting with no apparent end in sight.
In the immediate aftermath of the Killen Power Plant collapse, I interviewed US demolition man Joe Vendetti who claimed that investigations by OSHA — the HSE’s opposite number Stateside — were generally wrapped up in 18 months or less. Vendetti’s prediction proved far more accurate than mine.
So why is there such a massive gulf between UK and US prosecutions? I wish I knew the answer.
One possible explanation is that the US is a highly litigious society and, as a result, its legal system is a well-oiled machine that can suck in cases at one end and spit them out the other at a rate of knots that would make your head spin.
Another possible explanation is that the HSE has seen its budgets cut and its investigator numbers slashed. Or that it is now more focused upon handing out minor intervention fines to keep its beleaguered coffers filled.
My personal belief — and I shall draw upon a footballing metaphor to support my point — is that OSHA still understands its role and its ultimate purpose while the HSE has lost sight of the reason for its very existence.
There are certain football referees that are known to allow a game to flourish. They will wave yellow and red cards when necessary; but, in the main, they allow a game to flow. They allow a degree of physicality because they understand that the game is not about them but about the outcome and the entertainment of the watching crowd. Those referees are easily identified because they are the ones that football pundits and disgruntled fans never mention.
There are other football referees, however, that seemingly work under the illusion that the crowd is there purely to see them constantly interrupting the game; for applying the letter of the law even when that law is a nonsense; and for punishing the most innocuous misdemeanours when the game would have been improved vastly had they used their judgement and allowed play to continue. Those referees are equally easy to identify as they are the ONLY thing that football pundits and disgruntled fans talk about after the game.
In my metaphor, OSHA is the first kind of referee; applying the rules without becoming an obstacle. The HSE, meanwhile, seems Hell-bent on being just that — an obstacle.
The evidence is there, should you question the veracity of my claim. It took one month to recover the body of a man killed on a US demolition site. It took six times that long to recover three on a site in the UK. It took 17 months to investigate and prosecute that incident in the US. So far, it has taken four times that long in the UK….and the clock is still ticking.
Maybe the US is more litigious. Maybe the HSE is under-funded and under-staffed. Or maybe, just maybe, the Americans care for the bereaved just a little bit more.