In his only interview since the collapse at Didcot Power Station, Coleman & Co MD Mark Coleman talks to Construction News about the tragedy.
More from: Mark Coleman: 'This must never happen again'
As some of the media have been reporting, this was your first power station demolition contract. How did you prepare for it?
Coleman & Company, 1962. I’m a third generation family member. I’ve been involved in the business pretty much all of my life. I’m not a newbie to the industry.
Through the 50-plus years of the development of this business, clearly on day one we’re not knocking down power stations. You use your expertise, your experience and you grow the business. That’s all we’ve ever done.
We look at what our service provision is, how we can tailor that to the market, and how we can put skills together in demolition. So we looked at power station work coming back.
We set about [power station work] becoming an objective in our strategic plan. [We] set about developing a team and proposals to secure power station work.
That happened six or seven years ago, maybe more. The first power station [we priced] was Lots Road Power Station, Chelsea – a famous power station. That was complicated because of where it was, and you had to take the power station apart from the inside, you couldn’t demolish the whole thing.
“You don’t eat, you don’t sleep. We had all of that. You want to be there on call, ready and waiting”
Then Didcot came along.
What RWE was looking to achieve was a long process of procurement that correctly evaluated all of the risks with the project – those risks were around asbestos, demolition techniques, all of the obvious things. Stakeholder management was huge, which proved to be correct.
This really appealed to us. They said it would probably be a two-year procurement. The people who want to do the job tomorrow are going: ‘Two years to tender a job?’ We’re going: ‘Brilliant’. [It had] staged procurement, time to put proposals together, time on site, [tendering] for months.
And then we had an early works agreement, an eight-month contract to carry out full-time management, investigation, planning, safety, development of systems and procedures, design, analysis, checking, testing – on site, on that power station. It was unprecedented – I’ve never heard of it before for that type of work.
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This idea that somehow, because we haven’t done a power station, alludes to the fact that that creates problems – I actually believe it creates a scenario where every aspect of the job is considered in a lot more detail.
But the risks were significant and all [of those] risks were managed, investigated, explored, planned, checked, agreed.
How do you put a team together for this?
The structure of the team – you’ve got a project director, a safety manager who’s full time, a site manager that’s full time, and then six area supervisors. Each one of those has experience relative to the job that they’re doing.
The guy heading this up [for us] has worked for the company for in excess of 10 or 12 years, a tried and trusted guy. He didn’t do all of Network Rail’s [Birmingham] New Street scheme [on which Coleman & Co was demolition contractor for the £600m project], but he did significant parts of the major high-risk elements of the work, so that’s his sort of track record. He’s worked on multiple blowdowns for us, cut and carve structural demolitions, gasholder dismantling – a wide variety of experience.
“The next day there was a feeling of, ‘Oh my God, what is actually happening here?’”
The guys who are working in and amongst the boiler house, these are industrial demolition people who have worked in industrial demolition all of their lives. They know nothing else. And that is across the board.
All the people that are involved in this incident have been through a checking procedure, so we don’t just say, ‘Here’s an advert, you respond to this’ – we do advertise publicly, but for certain high-risk categories they have to go through a formal process.
A machine on its own just standing there isn’t going to have an accident, and a building just left on its own isn’t going to have an accident. The problems always occur for us, and anybody, during the process of what you’re doing – what we collectively all do.
People make mistakes.
My strategy around reducing those mistakes is to ensure we pay the right money, we screen people, we check them out – recruitment is robust.
Robinson & Birdsell (R&B) – despite the fact they’re known to us – are prequalified, properly checked, and during a three-year procurement programme led by RWE nPower, R&B were involved with us from day one. So there are no late introductions, no twists and turns.
Describe the lead-up to the incident. What work were you doing?
On site, we’ve demolished a variety of structures: south cooling towers; turbine hall; surrounding plant and equipment; offices. We were successful in blasting part of the main structure, which was the tank and bunker bay, which is [of a] similar construction.
Clearly these are very stable, robust structures, and to carry out the demolition of the structures, we pre-weaken them.
The pre-weakening of the structure is probably the most significant part of the demolition process. We rate that as very high risk within the organisation.
The [structural surveying] work was sent out for category 3 checking, where you give a design brief [for how you will deconstruct the building safely].
[All temporary works are classified for the purposes of design checking as category 0, 1, 2 or 3, with 0 the lowest-risk work that can be checked by another member of the design team. Category 3 temporary works design must be checked by a third-party organisation independent of the design team’s organisation].
[The independent organisation] then comes up with another design which basically checks what the first designers have done, so you’re looking at it from two different ways. We then receive that, and we interrogate it ourselves. We check it – we have no contractual responsibility to do that, but as part of our systems and procedures, we do it.
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We were preparing the building in accordance with the scheme that we’ve got. And we’ve been working on the structure since Christmas, preparing it, and we’ve had a blowdown lined up for 5 March. We were all on programme. We’d prepped the building all the way through, and it was all going well, no concerns.
We weren’t flooding the job with labour, to the point that on the day of the incident, we’d got only a limited number of people there because we’re in the final stages, we’re down at the bottom, we’re now preparing the legs for putting the explosives in.
At that point our explosives engineering team are on site, and prior to that [on] Monday we’ve been going around checking what we’re doing. And like anything, there are always things that you want to sort and tweak and improve – but overall, happy.
Did the work involve altering the structure?
No. It’s pre-weakening it.
With steelwork, what you effectively do is, you cut it and you leave tags in it. The tags hold it together and the cuts pre-weaken the structure, so when you induce the explosives, that kicks out the leg, the tags break, and the thing falls apart and collapses.
When were you made aware of the incident. What was your response?
On Tuesday I could tell by the buzzer going off, three or four calls, persistent, there’s a problem.
I took the call. I was told there had been a major incident on the site, there’d been a premature collapse and a huge section of the boiler house that’s collapsed.
“The families are demolition experts, they know all about it, they’re just phenomenal”
I simply didn’t believe them. I thought, ‘That’s impossible’. How on earth can that happen, with everything that we’re talking about that we’ve been through?
I got my team together, co-director, contracts director and general manager, and we came down to site.
While we were travelling we were putting plans into place – setting up the structural team to assess the structure, look at the model, check what cuts have been done, what’s standing, what’s down, because we knew that when we came to the site with a partial collapse and effectively a retained section of structure that hasn’t collapsed, there would be concerns that the rest could go.
We were aware that we’d got one fatality – that was obvious very early on. We’ve got a very good signing in and signing out procedure, all electronic swipes, so the roll call was very quick.
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We were able to establish very quickly what the situation was. We’ve got emergency procedures and the site had put them into place impeccably.
We also put in place an emergency control team at HQ, and they were assigned with back-of-house support, dealing with administrative, press, whatever issues there may be – that took us out of that equation and enabled us to deal with the issue in hand.
Really from that point it’s been a similar story all the way through, of the emergency services assessing the situation on the site and checking: is it safe to proceed? Which is where the structural information came in that we’d collated.
You’ve then got the families, communication with them and setting up a support network for them. We appointed people from within Colemans, effectively people I knew I could trust and rely on who were compassionate, caring and considerate.
It’s very, very difficult. Very, very hard. But nonetheless that’s what we’re doing.
How have the staff at Coleman & Co responded?
Like any person, emotionally we all react differently. The lack of sleep creates more emotional responses. On the Wednesday emotions were very high, the next day there was a dawning of reality.
The adrenaline’s gone, the tiredness is setting in, and there is a feeling of, ‘Oh my God, what is actually happening here?’
“There’s still a big project here to finish. Turning up at this site every day is going to be mentally difficult”
In an emergency situation like this, the tendency is to want to stay up all night: you don’t eat, you don’t drink, you don’t sleep. We had all of that. You want to be there on call, ready and waiting. This is a crisis, there’s a risk to life.
These guys work with each other, a lot of them went to school with each other, a lot of them come from up North. The families are demolition experts, even the wives, they know all about it, they’re just phenomenal. And they’re such a tight-knit bunch that it’s like an army-type feeling. Comrades. They’re there for [each other].
That has resulted in a lot of grief.
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[Staff are being told], ‘I just want you to come home’, and explaining that they ‘need to be here, because we might have to get the lads out’.
Those types of emotions – we’re now moving into a phase of counselling and support.
You’ve got the people who are directly affected, the families, and then you’ve got people who were close calls, people who were on site who were mates with them all of their lives, or people who didn’t know them so well. You’ve got different levels and they’ve all got different needs.
How did the families react when you met with them?
They said to me, ‘Why did you put my husband… why did you do that Mark? It’s you Mark, we’re blaming you, it’s you’.
“To be accosted, walking away from that site and then being followed in a taxi back to the hotel – it’s just disgraceful”
I totally, totally understand. I’ve said to our guys: we are physical punchbags and we’ve got to take it. [The families] have got to be able to let out, whether it’s at the press, us or whoever.
The first assumption you come to here is: it’s Coleman. And people in the industry aren’t saying it’s Coleman, because they understand what Coleman is about. The families, all of them without fail, have said they love working at Colemans.
This was a high-profile job and there’s been a lot of media interest. What has that been like?
While we want to share news, the way that has gone and the way that has been handled – you know, these guys are either dealing with a loss of life or concerned that they’re going to be dealing with a loss of life.
To be accosted, literally manhandled at a time of grieving, walking away from that site and then being followed in a taxi back to the hotel where we’ve got them – it’s just disgraceful, is really the only word I can use.
And the families are outraged.
The remaining structure: what are the risks with that?
Initial feelings are clearly that there has to be a risk because of what’s happened adjacent to it.
Is the structure at risk of imminent premature collapse?
We certainly don’t believe so, because the structure is in a different condition to the adjacent structure, we haven’t done as much work to it, and until we establish what’s caused the premature collapse – which clearly we’re nowhere near understanding that – the remaining structure we believe to be stable to carry out the work that we need to do to facilitate the rest of the work later on, if that makes sense.
That work later on may change dependant on the findings of the reason why the first [building collapsed].
Are you worried about the reputation of the business going forward?
I’m going to answer not with a yes or a no, and maybe you’ll understand why. We’ve looked after all of the important parties immediately, and we’ve then got a number of other operational high-risk sites throughout the UK.
We’ve had concerns about how people would be feeling, so we’ve had a very slow day. At the same time, we have then rung and spoken to each of our clients.
One client in a safety-critical industry, at a point of placing a multi-million-pound high-profile complex job, said, ‘Look Coleman, we’re totally behind you, you’re still getting the job’. All of our clients have been behind us.
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I have concerns about the future. I have many concerns about doing this sort of work in the future – I think that’s normal.
My texts – I’ve got to say I’ve had support from some of the biggest contractors going.
It’s not an exact thing demolition, and that’s what we try and do, remove the uncertainty from it. My concern going forward is how that moves on. I’m not in that state yet. We’ve had problems in the past, and those problems we have shared. When we had a collapse of a structure, a tower block, we joined forces with the HSE to do a presentation on it.
Going forward, there are many more power stations not just in England, but globally. It’s hugely important that whatever went wrong here isn’t hidden, and that knowledge and that experience that comes out of it, good, bad or indifferent, has to come out, as it has to be brought into best practice to ensure that this never, ever happens again.
How hard is it going to be to go back to work on this site? There’s still a big project here to finish.
It’s going to be very hard, not from a practical point of view. The practical challenges are what we do. Turning up at this site every day is going to be mentally difficult.
Successfully completing this job has been one of my lifetime ambitions. Everybody has enjoyed working on this site. And now that feeling is obviously not there.
We’re into a definite HSE investigation, clearly, and they’re going to want to recover evidence, and that means it’s going to be very time-consuming.
It’s going to be difficult emotionally, and it’s going to be protracted, longer. For everybody concerned. It’s hugely difficult.