The construction of the South Bank Quay at Teesworks is a project with issues. An accident on site last week might have served to highlight those that relate to safety and official oversight (or the lack of it). But the story was quickly consigned to oblivion by the region’s media. We wonder why.
An accident waiting to happen
At around 2.15pm on 23 November an excavator and its driver, working on the riverbank at the Teesworks site, slipped down the bank and fell into the estuary. The driver became submerged but escaped from his cabin, helped ashore by some of his colleagues, given first aid by PD Ports staff, and then taken to James Cook Hospital. By 5pm that day, no report of the incident had appeared in the local press, however.
It was about this time that the incident was reported to Tees Valley Monitor who quickly published a brief (but largely accurate) account on social media. Four hours later, at around 9pm, an article appeared in the Gazette under the title “Man taken to hospital with head injury after ‘machinery fell onto him’ at South Bank Quay site”. It is no exaggeration to say that this article was wildly inaccurate, and made the event appear so trivial as to hardly be worth reporting at all.
How had it taken the Gazette so long to get so ill informed about the incident? And who told them a piece of machinery had fallen on someone? Did they trust the source so completely that they didn’t feel the need to check the facts? Or perhaps they were concerned that a more accurate account might offend someone.
To be honest, we didn’t expect to see any further coverage after that, but at 5.30 pm the following evening, some 27 hours after the incident, the Gazette published a second article, this time under the much more attention-grabbing headline,
“Worker’s dramatic escape after being submerged in Tees when excavator toppled into water”
This article was detailed, accurate, presented statements from eyewitnesses, and had clearly had a great deal of time and effort expended on it. Curious, then that, following this, an account of the manifestly newsworthy incident appeared nowhere else – neither in the Northern Echo nor the Hartlepool Mail; nor BBC Tees Radio, nor in the BBC or ITV regional news.
So curious, in fact, that we wrote to the papers, the BBC and ITV to try to find out why. We didn’t get very far. It turns out that they don’t want to talk about it. The BBC replied politely that they weren’t prepared to comment on it; the rest just didn’t reply.
As for the Gazette, in addition to the long delay in reporting, was the fact that no attempt appears to have been made to sell the article on. This would be expected when so much time and effort (and therefore, money) had been spent on it. Which raises the question as to why they published the second article at all. And the answer is simple: complaints. Complaints about inadequate reporting from readers who knew at first hand something of what had happened.
We wrote to the Gazette to ask why they had made no effort to market their work, but it turns out that they didn’t want to talk about it either.
This is unfortunate, not least because it is not the first time there has been a serious accident on the site. In 2019, two men were killed in an explosion while preparing the ammonia washers at the South Bank coke ovens for demolition. The police investigation into their deaths has never been concluded. The workers’ families denied closure, and both they and the public denied a proper explanation of the lapse of safety standards on the site.
And so, it turns out, it may be that it’s not only the media that’s shy about Teesworks and what goes on there. We have now written to Cleveland Police to ask for an update on their investigation into the 2019 accident.
As regards to the latest incident, we contacted the TVCA and the main contractor, Graham Construction as soon as it was reported to us. We are yet to hear from them, an outcome which we had predicted. So, the following day we phoned the contractor the victim works for – Foyle and Marine Dredging Ltd to ask for comment.
The person who answered the phone became quite agitated when we asked him to confirm if Foyle and Marine were the dredging contractors on the South Bank site. He asked us to phone back the next day as he was just about to go into an important meeting, but we reassured him that we only had one question, which was to find out if the worker had been released from hospital. He relaxed at this point and told us that the man had suffered only minor injuries and had been released from hospital the same day. He then added “… and he’ll be back at work tomorrow”.
Just a few scratches then? Well, actually there’s quite a bit more to it than that.
Safety failures on the site
When the Gazette eventually published its detailed account, it included the following statement from one of the workers on the site:
“While we are building the quay, we built a storm platform to allow the machines to come on and off.
“We have created a wall of stone along the platform to prevent water [from] getting on the platform and to prevent machines and dumpers [from] slipping in. Last week [this] fell, and the whole entire working area became flooded with this constant river water.”
So, if anyone thought the accident was the result of bad driving, it wasn’t. It was that an already hazardous site had just become more hazardous by the collapse of some of the safety installations, amplified by days of heavy rain while the work continued as before without pause. This situation has persisted for at least a week.
Injured man submerged in contaminated estuary
It was also reported that the worker received a head injury as the excavator slipped down the bank. So that he already had an open wound as he entered the water and gained another as he smashed his way out of the cabin while fully submerged.
All dredging stirs up sediment, which remains suspended in the water for a period of time before settling down again. The sediment in the Tees is more contaminated than that of any other UK estuary, and the dredge currently being undertaken is close the most toxic area – the area now known as ‘Borehole 34’.
So, the worker, with two open wounds, is submerged in highly contaminated water before being dragged to safety. While the accident was entirely preventable and would never have occurred had proper safety standards been adhered to. And had proper safety standards been adhered to it would undoubtedly also have reduced the amount of spillage of contaminated sediment around the shoreline.
It was when reports emerged of the collapse of the retaining wall on the bank that we contacted the Environment Agency. We had previously written to them to inquire about the safety measures in place on the landward side of the dredging works after footage emerged of contaminated sediment being spilled onto the ground and back into the water. Their response to this was that
“Following an investigation, which included a site visit to observe the activity, we are satisfied work is being carried out appropriately and in accordance with relevant permissions.”
They went on to explain that suitable control measures were in place to prevent pollution, including a bund wall and a blind sump. The ‘bund wall’ being the retaining wall that later collapsed. So, we were now looking for an update from them. We sent them the quote from the Gazette as well as their earlier statement. Their response?
“We have nothing to add to the statement we have already issued.”
Veil of secrecy
This, we have to say, was rather less than we had hoped for, given that the bank has now been turned into a quagmire of toxic sludge. And they took offence when we wrote back suggesting that they were contributing to the veil of secrecy that surrounds work on this site. This was perhaps a rather harsh judgement, even though they had been less than forthcoming on this occasion. In general they are the least unhelpful of the government agencies that we deal with, and it is well documented that, after years of cutbacks, the agency now operates on a shoestring budget hopelessly inadequate to deal with issues on sites such as this where the powers that be have a manifestly relaxed attitude both to environmental safety and the welfare of workers on the site.
The Health and Safety Executive were similarly coy about giving out information. We wanted to know if they already know about the collapse of the retaining wall before this accident happened and also whether workers on the site had to wear protective clothing. The HSE has now launched an investigation, so their reluctance to make statements at this point is perhaps understandable.
However, we contacted them as soon as we got the report of the incident to ask if this incident had been reported to them. The following morning, they replied to this twice, once to say that it hadn’t, and later to say that they had been informed the previous day. This may just be a case of correcting an earlier mistake, but it reminded us of an earlier exchange of emails that we had with the EA and HSE in October.
At that time, we had received a report that a benzene reservoir had been disturbed by workers on the South Bank site during piling. Some workers were asphyxiated and had to be sent home. Others briefly continued the work using breathing apparatus, but that section of the work was shortly afterwards closed down while site managers pondered what to do about it.
We approached STDC and Graham Construction and asked for confirmation of these details but received no response. When we approached the Environment Agency and the HSE, both stated that no such incident had been reported to them. We therefore did not publish a report on the incident.
In the light of what happened on 23 November, we must now question whether the simple fact that an incident on the South Bank Quay site is not reported to the relevant authorities is, of itself, evidence, that such an incident did not take place. Both the EA and HSE appear to rely heavily on operators following proper procedure for reporting incidents. But it is unclear whether their powers of oversight are sufficient if site operators choose not to do so. And on a site as hazardous as Teesworks, the consequences of not doing so are potentially catastrophic.
Agencies take a hands-off approach
The authorities appear to have been taking a hands-off approach to various safety issues on the site. When we asked the HSE if they would like to comment on demands that work on the site be stopped until proper investigation is carried out, they declined to do so.
Before this accident happened, we were preparing to write on the demolition of the blast furnace, in particular about the safety measures in place to prevent contamination through two watercourses on the site. When we approached the EA about this, their response was that the contractors have to comply with regulations, the implication being that it is taken on trust that they will do so. We question now whether that trust may be misplaced.
As for the media, the whole incident leaves the impression that the reporting of incidents such as this is considered off limits. The Gazette had little choice but to report it as the cat had been let out of the bag. That, however, raises the question as to why this should be the case.
There are undoubtedly political sensitivities around this site, the freeport, the flagship economic initiative for post-Brexit economic growth. And in pursuit of this, environmental hazard and lax safety standards for workers are not only in evidence but appear to be treated as an acceptable level of collateral damage in pursuit of this economic nirvana.
Meanwhile feeble regional media stand well back, aware that the reporting of an incident such as the one that happened last Wednesday is a potential embarrassment for the architects of the freeport. And these are toes not to be trodden on.
So, the press is remarkably shy of reporting incidents on the site. The Environment Agency and the HSE appear to be prepared to take a whole lot more on trust than the behaviour of the various contractors on the site warrants, and meanwhile the Secretary of State for the Environment, as we reported recently, would like an independent panel of experts to examine possible sources of contamination of the marine environment without ever looking into what’s happening on the Teesworks site at all.
So, for the sake of all those involved in bringing the freeport to Teesside, you are invited to look away now.