Challenging times ahead? New NFDC president David Darsey talked to Lindsay Gale

27 May 2009

"The industry is certainly in an economic downturn, and a heavy one at that. With many major UK construction projects currently on hold, there is bound to be a substantial impact on the UK demolition industry, so maintaining the steady ship that has been established by my NFDC president predecessors is a key goal," said David Darsey, opening the discussion.

Part of this, he believes, is to get the message across to the NFDC membership that although current conditions are difficult, those companies that can maintain efficient, safe and above all professional services to their customers will reap the benefits when the economic cycle turns. "The industry should make sure that they don't let their standards slip - don't let training slip, don't let health and safety slip. The NFDC and its members are respected, we are the voice of the UK demolition industry and we must not lose this respect."

In tough economic times, there can be a tendency for contractors who lack the training and experience in carrying out demolition to go for work that they are not qualified to carry out, either in terms of training or practical experience.

According to Mr Darsey, "This is something that clients must be mindful of. They have a duty of care to ensure that the people they employ are competent contractors and not somebody that has dreamt overnight that they can do the work because the groundwork business is slow, for example. For that reason, it is my opinion that clients in the UK should only employ NFDC members to carry out demolition work of any type. This is the message that we will be sending out over the next two years."

Safety at work

Another area that is exercising Mr Darsey's mind is a logical extension of the work carried out by the NFDC to improve health and safety on demolition sites through training and the establishment of best working practices.

With the site audit scheme now in place, the NFDC may well now turn its attention to occupational health. "Getting the site audit scheme accepted and in place was probably the greatest step the NFDC has made in the last few years, and is a good way of monitoring standards. I feel the next step would be to get occupational health included as part of the site audit scheme over my two years tenure as president. Initially, I see this is being voluntary, not a compulsory component," said Mr Darsey.

A number of the larger demolition companies in the UK already run such schemes, as does Mr Darsey's own Erith Demolition. "A simple five minute MOT of a worker's health, carried out on site, can identify possible health concerns before they become a serious problem. There is a cost to such schemes, of course, but in my view the benefits gained by both the company and the individual concerned far outweigh that cost. From a company perspective, the fact that health issues are dealt with early means that you get the best out of good trained employees for longer."

Given today's current industry climate, Mr Darsey accepts that the cost of implementing such schemes may initially put off those who do not currently operate such a scheme and that a degree of ‘selling the concept' will be required. "We have to get the message across that such a scheme is a win-win thing. Yes, you have to pay initially but in time you will get your money back 10-fold because of fewer days lost to illness etc."

The NFDC's recent move to its new headquarters building just to the north of London will also provide improved facilities for its training activities, something that Mr Darsey is keen to push forward: "The facilities at the new Resurgam House are second to none." The investment involved was substantial - in the order of £750,000 (US$1.2 milion) - but is a clear sign of how far the Federation has come in recent years. "When I first came into office as a regional chairman, the Federation was using an overdraft facility. Today, the situation is very different. With the increase in training, the National Demolition Training Group, the increase in events and functions, and the revenue from our house magazine, we have managed to purchase the new property without having to borrow any funds. This is another credit to the way the Federation has been run," said Mr Darsey. "It is a good investment for the Federation to make, irrespective of the fact we have made it during a business downturn."

Global moves

As the demolition industry around the world gets closer together in terms of the equipment and techniques used, so the various associations representing the industry are also looking at co-operating together more closely.

"I believe that the National Demolition Association has learned a lot in the past from the NFDC, and will learn a lot in the future. The NFDC's rules and articles were the base that the NDA used when it was set up, They are adopting or have adopted a number of the guidance documents that we have developed - high reach, crushing and tower block deconstruction and there are two others that we are currently working on that they want to adopt."

It is in the recycling field that Mr Darsey feels that the US demolition industry still has some way to go. "Our last survey of our members should that they routinely recycle 95% of all waste arising from their demolition activities. This is in contrast to a figure of 48% for NDA members."

Training is another area where the NDA could learn from the NFDC. "Personally, I think that the training offered by the NFDC/NDTG to demolition operators is the best scheme currently available and I know from contacts I have had with NDA members that they want to become more involved with training. I want the NFDC to work with the Americans, and the Europeans, to develop the best operator training schemes possible. I am not saying we cannot learn anything from them - the NDA's scholarship scheme in conjunction with Purdue University is a very good scheme, and it is something that I want to bring up at our National Council. Tying up with a UK university to provide formal training would only be for the good of the industry. The idea of a course being developed that would offer a degree in demolition in the UK would be brilliant."

There is no question that Mr Darsey is passionate about the benefits of and the need for good training. "I am a firm believer in good training and the proof the benefits that training offers is there in the reduced accident rates we see today in the UK."

Finding the time

Taking on the office of president (or any other office in any association) requires a real commitment in terms of time that can impact on ‘the day job'. So how will Mr Darsey minimise the effect of this on Erith Group.

He was candid: "Erith is a family business - I work alongside my two brothers to run the company - and I have a very supportive family, which helps. Erith has a good board of directors and a good set of what I term middle management. Obviously we knew that my term of office was coming up, so we put in place a company management structure that would allow me time to devote to NFDC matters."

He went on: "This isn't just a two year commitment on Erith's part, it is a 10 year journey starting off at a regional NFDC level up to national level and eventually to NFDC president. The position of vice president calls for a substantial commitment in terms of time with that of president demanding perhaps twice as much, it is a big investment from my company's point of view. My brothers and I spoke about this commitment 10 years ago, before I even agreed to stand for regional office - we felt it would be good for the industry and I felt I had something to offer. You cannot take on a role with an industry federation half-heartedly."

"What I will say is that there are three NFDC presidents in my eyes - myself, Gary Bishop (current vice president) and William Sinclair (current second vice president) - and all three of us need to get out and sell the NFDC. In addition, the NFDC has a chief executive, Howard Button, who is doing wonders. And then there are the past presidents who are still very active in the Federation. With my company's management structure and this NFDC ‘team', hopefully I will cope."

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