When the mortar doesn’t hold

David Rose

On Saturday 29 January, I left my in-laws’ house in Wadham Road, Bootle, and headed for the Strand Precinct to buy myself a shirt. As I reached the junction with Stanley Road a building fell down in front of me. I saw a man leap from the top of it. There was a crash and bricks spilled out into the road, pulling the scaffolding down with them. Another man was pinned between the falling building and the scaffolding. There was a cloud of dust as the noise grew, then it was quiet. This, more or less, was the substance of my witness statement a week later to the local Health and Safety Executive inspector.

‘What did you do then?’

‘I ran back to my in-laws to call for help. Then I returned to the site. There was a man lying on his back shouting that there were at least two more still inside. The people who had arrived at the site couldn’t go near because the block was unsafe. If we’d touched it the whole lot would have come down.’

The inspector paused. ‘Did you get your shirt?’

There is at least one fatal accident every week on building sites and demolition projects in Britain. That week the victim was Steve Kilkie, a 35-year-old father of one. Rescuers found his body at 4.45 p.m. His family had been at the scene all day as firemen removed the bricks one by one. I asked the inspector who was accountable for an accident like this on a demolition site.

‘Historically,’ he said, ‘the Health and Safety Executive could only blame the contractor. But since the introduction of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, 1994, we can look further back along the line to make sure the job has been funded and resourced properly.’

Each client, he added, has a duty. It is no longer enough just to hire a group of workers and hope for the best: safety plans have to be in operation and the client has to ensure that the contractors he employs are competent. ‘There are signs of improvement,’ the inspector continued, ‘but there are still glitches.’ As I left his office I wondered what kind of glitch could take down a building that had stood for the best part of a century and carry a man with it.

‘A builder can walk down the street and admire his work for years,’ the inspector had said. ‘He can point it out to his kids. A demolition man knocks buildings down. At the end of the day he’s got nothing more than a pile of broken bricks, and even that gets cleared up after a few days. If a man’s got something to give a toss about, he will, but the law can’t help him with that.’

The building that collapsed was one of five adjoining shops in Bootle that had been acquired by Pierhead Housing Association last October. This particular ‘urban regeneration’ project, Pierhead’s press officer told me, involved knocking down five commercial units, each with two storeys of flats above, and replacing them with five commercial units, each with two storeys of flats above. The project cost £1 million, and was paid for by Sefton Metropolitan Council, the European Regional Development Fund and private finance from the housing association itself. There are many schemes like this in Liverpool, Sefton and most industrial areas in Britain. This one was scheduled to last 12 months, but within a week of the scaffolding going up and the demolition getting underway, the building had collapsed. Pierhead’s press officer read me their statement. It offered their ‘deepest condolences to the family and friends of Steve Kilkie’. They would, it said, be co-operating fully with the HSE investigation. Beyond that, they couldn’t comment.

On a building site, a craftsman can expect to earn between £8 and £9 an hour. A demolition man with a few years’ experience will earn the Demolition Industry Conciliation Board’s rate of £5.52. It takes less time to knock a building down than to put one up, so demolition workers tend to be employed for short periods, with long gaps between jobs. This pattern of work, with unpaid ‘laid-off’ periods which can last a couple of weeks or several months, has more general safety implications. For every man asking the union rate of £5.52 an hour, there are, invariably, truckloads willing to take as little as £10 a day. Delays in receiving state benefits make working while still signing on the dole the only option available to a large number of casual workers. Indeed, in demolition work there are many benefits to be had for small-scale employers who take on illegal claimants. Union rates and the minimum wage become irrelevant; the overtime restriction of a 48-hour-week ceases to apply; and, most significantly, the right to work in a safe environment becomes meaningless. If a man is working when he has told the Department of Social Security that he isn’t, the chances are that he won’t join the union when the local rep comes round – nor will he complain about the safety of the site he’s working on.

‘They should never have been in there,’ one man said to me at the scene of the collapse. He had been working on another site further along Stanley Road and came down when he heard about the accident. ‘I walked past here yesterday and was amazed that the roof had stayed on. Too much was missing.’ He told me he was a builder; he had been in the trade for years. I asked if he had ever seen anything like this.

‘It doesn’t stop,’ he said. ‘There’s always some fucking cowboy ready to set up shop.’ With that he shook his head and walked off.

I asked Kevin, one of the employees at the demolition firm involved in the accident, whether workmen would ever remove crucial structural elements. ‘They didn’t take out anything structural,’ he told me. ‘Just partition and studded walls. Window frames, door frames.’ Could the storm-force winds the previous evening have been a factor, as the press had suggested? ‘No way. Wind doesn’t knock buildings down.’

The principal aim of the 1994 CDM Regulations is to improve the management and co-ordination of health and safety issues at each stage of a construction project. It is incumbent on all those involved – designers, contractors, subcontractors and the clients themselves – to aid this in any way they can. Overall responsibility for the safety of a project rests with the client – in this case Pierhead – who must ensure that any appointed agent is competent and adequately resourced. On the Stanley Road project, for example, Pierhead would have had to commission a safety assessment on an ageing block that had been extensively renovated over the years.

I spoke to Paula, a hairdresser who moved her business from the block last year. ‘The floors were rotten; you had to be careful where you walked,’ she said. ‘There was a fire a few years back and the fire brigade couldn’t use the stairs because they had rotted away.’ She told me how often the shop fronts had been improved, and the wall-ties altered. The supporting joists at the rear of the building had also been repaired. All of this happened during the last eight years. Before Paula’s time there had been other businesses; other tenants; and other landlords turning flats into bedsits then back into flats again. But if the workmen hadn’t removed any structural elements, as Kevin had told me, wouldn’t such changes be largely irrelevant? Not according to Jaya Skandamoorthy of the Building Research Establishment in Watford.

‘If the structural components of a building are altered at all during its life, there would need to be some consideration of the changes that had taken place to determine whether the load-distribution throughout the whole building had been affected.’ In other words, by the time the workmen had begun to knock out partition walls and studded walls, it is entirely possible that they had acquired a significant role in the stability of the building – that, over the years, the studded walls, partition walls, even the door and window frames, had actually come to bear a structural load. Crucially, it is not enough for the employer just to carry out a risk assessment: what matters is that the workers get to see the results.

George Guy is the Regional Secretary for the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (North-West Region). His office is on Stanley Road, directly opposite the building that collapsed. ‘We are seeing ever increasing breakdowns in communication in the industry,’ he told me. ‘Very rarely do workers get to view the health and safety file of a project. That building was like a cardboard box. The employer had a duty to his workers not only to examine the block thoroughly, but also to pass on the results. If there had been a complete risk assessment the building simply wouldn’t have fallen down.’

Guy was in no doubt that clients wanted to get involved in safety planning. While the regulations have been tightened up, however, the actual number of Health and Safety inspectors visiting sites has been reduced. ‘This building fell down after just a week of work; that’s how quickly problems appear. But the inspectors have paperwork to do as well as site visits. With fewer inspectors, the workload increases, all while the funding of the Health and Safety Executive amounts to very little.’ This, it seems to me, is the hardest blow to construction workers – the system that legislates for the adequate resourcing of the building industry is itself under-resourced.

If there were a nationwide register of employers in the building trade, the HSE would be able to check whether or not contractors were competent, rather than allowing anybody to wake up on a Monday morning and decide that they are going to run a demolition firm that week. In the game of dare that is being played between cowboy operators and the HSE, the HSE always has to concede, because it has very few means of checking the credentials of either employers or their workers. It is also the case that the regulations do not do anything to solve the problem of the extended periods of unemployment that can push a man into illegal work.

Beneath the trumpeted headlines of the autumn 1999 edition of Site Safe News, an HSE newsletter, there is a distinct lack of substance: ‘BURIED ALIVE. A foreman was almost killed when a trench collapsed on a building site in Bristol. His employers were fined £10,000 plus costs’; ‘CHILD LABOUR SCANDAL. Three teenage boys (aged 14-15) were left under the threat of long-term illness after stripping asbestos without adequate protection. The two brothers who employed them were sentenced to 240 hours and 120 hours of community service respectively and ordered to pay costs of a total of £6000.’ Custodial sentences can be imposed for breaches of Construction (Design and Management) or Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) regulations – but nobody has yet received one. Significantly, the brothers who employed the teenagers were prosecuted under four Acts which predate the new legislation, one of which came into force 80 years ago.

It is difficult to see how fines can have any effect at all on larger firms. In 1998, Belway Homes Ltd admitted a breach of CDM Regulations: they had no functioning safety plan when two accidents occurred on a site at the old Hither Green Hospital in Lewisham. In the first, a man was in hospital for six weeks after a trench collapsed; in the second, a driver was killed after his dumper truck rolled over the edge of a spoil heap. Belway were fined £10,000 in each case and ordered to pay costs of £3000. The health of one workman and the life of another were worth a total of £23,000. In his Bootle office, George Guy told me he wanted to see charges of corporate manslaughter preferred in the future. Until that happened, he reckoned, contractors, agents and, above all, the clients who run the projects would continue to get away with murder.