Lesley McLeod: If we want to stay safe we must learn from failings which lead to tragedies

The explosion and fire on the Piper Alpha North Sea platform  on 6 July, 1988, caused the deaths of 167 workers
The explosion and fire on the Piper Alpha North Sea platform on 6 July, 1988, caused the deaths of 167 workers
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Memory is a funny thing. Can you remember where you were 30 years ago? Were you even born? I am well aware half of England knows exactly what they were doing in 1966 – and would have remembered 2018 for every bit as long if Southgate’s lions had gone the distance. But, I have to confess, I often struggle for total recall of events last week. Oddly, however, I know exactly what I was up to in July 1988.

It was a life-changing summer for me. I chucked in a perfectly respectable job with a bank to take a post-graduate qualification in business administration. That led to a wonderful whirlygig quarter-century as a spin doctor for a series of socially challenging and controversial employers.

Lesley McLeod, Chief Executive, The Association for Project Safety

Lesley McLeod, Chief Executive, The Association for Project Safety

My best friend married one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. They’ve just celebrated their pearl anniversary. And I went on holiday to a beautiful island off the Croatian coast near Dubrovnik just before the former Yugoslavia imploded. I’ve recently been back and, thankfully after all that strife, it’s every bit as tranquil.

However, what remains most vivid in my mind, is a disaster that has left a lasting mark on my home town of Aberdeen. Piper Alpha claimed 167 North Sea workers and shattered the lives of those bereaved. It burned itself into the hearts and minds of countless others – from hospital staff to air crew, from the oilmen to ­clergymen. Our church provided ­pastoral ­support to the oil industry and the congregation was deeply affected even though we were safe onshore. The Chief Constable at the time – a friend of my father’s – could never shake off the sights he, and the officers who mounted the subsequent inquiry into the inferno, had seen.

The tragedy was a salutary lesson, if one was needed, that fire can be a tricky friend and a treacherous foe. The fallout challenged and changed the freewheeling attitudes in the ­silver dollar city but left behind, in its aftermath, the promise of better offshore safety procedures.

Echoes of this Pandora-hope resonate in my current job at the Association for Project Safety (APS) as we, and colleagues across the construction sector, struggle to create a safer future from the ashes of the Grenfell tower disaster.

Remedial action for many may seem – and probably is – too little, too late and new rules are not enough of themselves. They don’t address the mindset which gave rise to the multiple failings that allowed fire to engulf the tower block.

The government has now identified things to be addressed both in response to the fire and the recommendations of the Hackitt review. As a result, Dame Judith is not getting to turn in her badge quite yet as she’ll be chairing a safety steering group to ensure industry takes on board overdue cultural change. APS will, as a contribution to the official ­consultation just launched, be asking our members about changes needed to the building regulations.

That said, there is genuine willingness to set things right and make the lasting legacy of Kensington and ­Chelsea a positive memory both home and away.

The International Fire Safety Standards (IFSS) Coalition, chaired by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), was launched in Geneva earlier this month. It brings together an initial group of around 30 international organisations to develop a shared set of landmark industry standards. The coalition aims to identify and reinforce best practice and, once the high-level principles are developed, deliver things locally.

It is a bold step and proof we can always learn from each other – an attitude which underpins the industry awards my organisation celebrates every year. The awards for our professional colleagues and ­student designers will be presented in ­Manchester in September.

I know awards seem to crowd the professional landscape like ­midges in a ­Scottish summer but, unlike the beasties, there’s an actual point to prizes. We see the entries as a way of highlighting innovation, skill and expertise in design and construction health and safety risk management. By publicising the winning projects, we aim to promote best practice and share the knowledge that may help prevent death, life-changing injury and the illnesses associated with work in construction. It would be great to be a winner with accolades and achievements to recount. But we are all fallible so, while it’s good to showcase success, it is wise to reflect on how we can learn from failings.

Lesley McLeod is chief executive of the Association for Project Safety www.aps.org.uk