Monday 9 August 2004 is a date Jennifer Deeney will never forget. It was when her husband Kieron died in an accident on a construction site - 13 weeks after they were married. Since then she’s been campaigning for better site safety - and a calendar of naked women to raise funds is just part of it
’Don’t panic, but there’s been an accident,” were the words that tore apart Jennifer Deeney’s world. It was her brother-in-law on the phone saying her husband Kieron had been in an accident on a Laing O’Rourke site in Docklands and was in an air ambulance. As a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, Deeney says she knew that could only mean “Kieron was knocking at death’s door”. Tragically, Kieron Deeney, a 25-year-old Irish steel fixer did indeed die that day. The couple had been married for just 13 weeks.
That was on Monday 9 August 2004. Since then Deeney has retrained as a health and safety officer and campaigned for better safety standards in construction. Now, her efforts have culminated in a bid to raise £200,000 for families of construction workers killed or injured at work. Intriguingly, it involves a calendar of naked female construction workers.
“Don’t worry, I’m not a crier,” Deeney says in her gentle Irish lilt at the beginning of this interview, with a warm smile. But her story is heartbreaking nonetheless, and it is the most powerful argument she has for the changes she wants to see the industry make - more than ever in the midst of a downturn which Deeney fears could mean health and safety is the “first thing to go”.
Deeney was at home recovering from a night shift when her brother-in-law Christopher called with his horrific news at around 1pm. Deeney hung up and immediately began trying to find out exactly what had happened to her husband. Panicked calls to his employer, the police and Kieron’s own mobile revealed nothing. “The fact that relatives need to be informed is just not factored into the process of dealing with accidents on site,” says Deeney.
Frantic with worry, Deeney got a friend to drive her from her home in North-west London to the site where Kieron had been working on the Isle of Dogs. It was pouring with rain and they were stuck in traffic when she got another call from Christopher. He had been asked by the police to go to Canary Wharf police station. “I knew for sure then that my husband was dead because at work we are never allowed to tell the family someone has died over the phone,” says Deeney. Despite this, she called the police station. “I kept saying, I know he’s dead, just tell me”, but to no avail.
Agonisingly, it took Deeney more than an hour to reach the police station to be told what she already knew. She says she will always remember being in the lift at Canary Wharf station on her way back to the car. “Part of me died that day, and part of me will always be in that lift at Canary Wharf.”
The next few days were a waking nightmare, she says. “Within a few hours my whole world was torn apart. Kieron and I had not even watched our wedding video yet; we were planning a family, then the next thing I knew I was organising his funeral.” The people who had been guests at the Deeney’s wedding 14 weeks earlier now returned to the same church to see him buried.
After six months off work, Deeney trained as a health and safety inspector in the manufacturing industry. She did the job for 15 months, in which time Deeney says she learned one of the main causes of accidents is assuming others will take responsibility for safety. Deeney returned to nursing, after deciding it suited her better, but has been involved in health and safety ever since.
In the meantime, the coroner’s inquest into Kieron’s death rumbled on. Deeney says it was repeatedly pushed back - for instance when an inquest into the July 2005 London bombings was prioritised.
Finally in 2006, Laing O’Rourke admitted responsibility for Kieron’s death during a civil claim by Deeney for compensation. Then in February 2007 an inquest jury brought a verdict of unlawful killing. However, the HSE only concluded its investigation and fined Laing O’Rourke last year (see below).
To ensure that Kieron’s death meant something, Deeney’s initial aim was to get Laing O’Rourke to change some of its policies. In particular she wanted the system of communicating with relatives in cases of site accidents to be changed. Deeney says: “To their credit, they did everything I asked for.” She adds that she “has no interest” in blaming the firm. From this she began giving talks on sites throughout the industry, using her own story to emphasise that “if you are not safe,I am proof of what people go through.”
Deeney’s message is that health and safety should be everyone’s responsibility, from the cleaner to the chief executive. It must start with designers: “Steel work can be designed with pieces poking up, which can cause injury, but it can also be curved to avoid this - why can’t the curves be standardised?” Above all, people must not assume someone else will make something safe. “The lines of responsibility are weak on a construction site. People will walk past things thinking someone else will sort it out. Kieron died simply because a bad bit of wood was across a hatchway - anybody could have fixed it.”
Now Deeney aims to raise money for the Deeney Fund, part of the Lighthouse Club, a charity for families of construction workers affected by accidents or illness. With support from specialist contractor the Byrne Group, Deeney has created a calendar featuring women from the industry who posed naked save for strategically placed pieces of PPE - “excruciatingly embarrassing” - says Deeney, who is one of the models. To support the cause, you are invited to pay £999 to attend a reception at the Savoy on 3 November, where you’ll receive three copies of the limited edition calendar.
Six years on from Kieron’s death, Deeney does not have a new partner. She says she is ready to meet someone but on the other hand, “if I don’t that’s okay - Kieron worshipped the ground I walked on so I feel very lucky.”
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An unnecessary death
Laing O’Rouke was fined £135,000 on 5 May 2009 in London Central Criminal Court for the incident in which Kieron Deeney fell more than 10m to his death on the Jemstock project, off Marsh Wall on the Isle of Dogs, Tower Hamlets. He was working on a concrete core pillar on a jump form (which allows the construction of internal walls, slabs and beams ahead of the structural walls). The HSE reported after its investigation: “Nobody witnessed the incident, but a colleague nearby who heard a loud bang looked through a hole in the deck previously covered with plywood and saw Mr Deeney’s body in the basement level of the core.”
Dominic Elliss, an inspector for the HSE, said the case highlighted “the need for robust systems for the covering of voids together with regular effective site inspections.”
- To give an idea of how far construction still has to go, since the Afghan war started eight years ago 337 British soldiers have died in the conflict. In the same period in the UK, there have been more than 600 site deaths.