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'Like travelling through a dark, fog-shrouded forest'

Health and safety Consultant's trial collapses

Having been cleared in court of responsibility for a fatal accident on one of his projects, consultant Andrew Allan describes how the case dominated his life since 2000.

Words and pictures by Adrian Greeman.

Andrew Allan will talk to you at length about the details of his recent court case if you ask him, speaking in a calm controlled manner, though perhaps with a touch of monomania. And he will also tell you his opinion of the way the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is pursuing engineers by prosecution in its current safety campaign.

He can perhaps be forgiven if he seems a little obsessive about it all - after all the case has dominated his life for the last four years.

Allan was prosecuted by the HSE following the death of a worker during construction of an aircraft hangar designed by Allan for Speke Airport, now John Lennon Airport. The steelworker died when a sliding hangar door fell on him during its installation (NCE 29 April).

The HSE claimed that Allan had breached the Construction Design & Management (CDM) regulations which require designers to provide guidance to constructors about working methods and possible safety hazards. Allan's trial collapsed at the end of April when the court heard that contractors were satisfied with the safety information he supplied (NCE 29 April).

The impact of a fatal accident and subsequent prosecution has undermined Allan's working life, his family life and any few private moments he has had for the last four years.

Rehearsing the arguments to explain why his design work and detailing of safety risks was not the cause of, or a contributor to, the accident, and that there was enough information in the drawings to warn where necessary of any dangers, has been Allan's preoccupation night and day. Coping emotionally and professionally has been a daily struggle.

'It has been like travelling through a dark, dank, fogshrouded forest, ' he says graphically, 'although looking back now, even just a few weeks later, I already cannot remember exactly how it felt.'

Since the HSE's case against him collapsed on the second day of the trial in Liverpool Crown Court he says his friends describe him as transformed.

'One said I looked three inches taller.'

The nightmare began in August 2000 when the accident put one of the steel workers in hospital. At first things seemed not too bad, the worker Ian Cavender had survived and was conscious. Allan phoned the main contractor a couple of times to check his progress. And then came a fateful phone call.

'I was out celebrating my birthday with the family on a canal boat trip when the mobile rang with the news that Ian Cavender had died. I burst into tears - and that is unusual because I am not really that kind of person.'

For the next 16 months he says he was redesigning the hangar doors in his mind over and over again to see if anything he could have done would have changed the outcome. He finally convinced himself that to have affected the accident 'was beyond my reach'.

The inquest was the most harrowing moment he says, particularly listening to a description of the injuries caused, and seeing the impact of it all on the family of the man who died. 'Every young engineer should have to attend a hearing to appreciate the impact of an accident, which perhaps leaves behind a widow and children.'

But it was looking after his own wife and young children which soon became a preoccupation, as Allan learned that he was to be prosecuted for failure to provide adequate safety information under the then eight year old CDM regulations. He had only recently remarried and had two small children.

'Maxim was just two years old and Charlotte a toddler and I had to think about how I was going to support them.'

'A conviction would have finished my career as a civil and structural engineer, ' he says. No-one would want to employ an engineer held responsible for a major accident, especially a fatality, he felt.

The difficulties would be all the greater because the 55 year old Allan runs a one man practice primarily doing structural engineering work.

'When you work on your own you are very vulnerable to criticism, ' he says. He had few colleagues to offer any support.

If he survived professionally he says, it is because of the support and trust of a network of existing clients who continued to believe in his capacities as an engineer.

After 25 years with various practices such as Robert West & Partners, Mander Raikes & Marshall, and particularly, he says, with the inspirational Bill Curtin, he had built up a sound reputation particularly in production and maintenance buildings in the aircraft industry.

In several jobs for companies like British Aerospace he had created innovative and economical solutions for seemingly intractable problems and was well thought of.

But if past clients kept some projects coming while the case hung over him, work was still slowly running down.

'Companies get taken over, managers change and so on. In this business you need to continuously renew your client base and that has been impossible. You know you will be asked if you have or have had any safety prosecutions against you. And you dare not even get to where you must fill out the forms.'

One major worry was off his shoulders however - legal costs would be paid by the professional indemnity insurance. 'Never complain about the need for PI, ' he says. 'The insurance company has been very supportive and positive, as were the lawyers.'

Asked which were his most worrying days, he says 'all of them. I was permanently under a cloud.' It felt Kafka-esque at times he says, walking around wondering 'What do they want from me?'

One of the worst moments however was earlier this year.

His marriage had suffered the strain and he was determined to celebrate his tenth anniversary with a trip to Prague in February.

But a case involves many preliminary hearings and although he was told he need not attend in person, one was deferred until just that day.

'It meant I walked around Prague listening out for the mobile.' He thought the case he had was so clear by then that the HSE would pull out. 'The news that they were going ahead was awful and that was another time I cried.'

One final moment of emotional strain hit him the day he discovered the case was not holding up in court. 'I punched the air first of all and then collapsed on the ground.'

Allan says he is not bitter about the whole experience but wants to talk to the HSE about its avowed campaign to pursue designers for failing to provide safety information. A meeting has been arranged with inspectors.

First, he thinks there needs to be some clarity about what the HSE expects from designers.

The 'safe' option for engineers is documenting everything. But this will simply drown the contractors in too much paperwork, he says, something the British Constructional Steel Association, for instance, specifically warns against. And Allan points out that HSE's own information sheet 41 advises that only information 'which (others) cannot reasonably be expected to know' should be given by designers.

He is also convinced that research showing a 40% figure for the numbers of health and safety incidents where 'designers could make a difference' is suspect, because it is based on soft and anecdotal information. 'Focus group discussion is not hard statistics'.

And he believes punitive prosecution is not the way to get safety consciousness into engineers' minds anyway.

'Whoever you talk to, builders, site managers, engineers, they are bewildered by the CDM regulations.'

'It is a hazard to their careers but they don't understand how to stay on the right side of the law.' It is not well defined, he believes, and 'prosecution via a woolly law is not the way to achieve anything. Education is the answer.'

'I don't know the answers.

But if this case raises the debate that will be something. That is why I am talking to you.'

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