Editor’s comment: We mustn’t forget about near misses

Scaffolding collapsed outside of the Royal Free Hospital. Picture: RON VESTER

Scaffolding collapsed outside of the Royal Free Hospital. Picture: RON VESTER - Credit: Archant

Like many, I watched in horror as news of the scaffolding collapse outside the Royal Free came in last week.

And like many, I can scarcely believe no one was killed or injured.

I’ve heard it said that it doesn’t bear thinking about how much worse this catastrophe could have been. But actually, I’d have to argue the opposite: we must think about exactly how badly this could have ended.

Whether it was the fault of the scaffolding construction, a flaw in the materials, vandalism, a freak accident, or whatever else, it was not by design that the body count was zero: it was a complete, terrifying fluke.

There is a school in Pond Street and the area would have been busy with young families minutes after the tower collapsed. There is a hospital entrance metres from the site; there is a parade of shops. The road is narrow and steep, and a two-way bus route to boot.

There could have been potentially dozens of casualties, any number of them fatal, and it is vital that we bear this in mind while establishing whose fault it is and what they did wrong.

I very much hope the Grenfell disaster will prove to be a game-changer in health and safety terms. The evacuation of the Chalcots Estate – whose safety failings were a near miss rather than a tragedy – would not have been nearly so frenzied had it not been framed by the recent memory of 71 people being killed in a tower many had already raised concerns about.

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The lesson is that we must treat the potential for disaster as seriously as a disaster itself. I hope I never again read or hear the ridiculous expression “health and safety gone mad”.

By definition, something went very badly wrong in Pond Street last week – huge scaffolding columns should not fall over when it gets a bit windy. We need to understand what happened as a matter of urgency, and the professionals behind the project should be made to account for it.