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Not my job, guv!

Not my job, guv!

There are salutary lessons to be learned from the tragic death of Jacob Marx, the 27-year-old lawyer who was killed when he was hit by a falling sign in Camden, London in January, 2013.

Signs, particularly big, heavy units which are erected or suspended over public thoroughfares are potentially lethal, and everyone involved in the process of designing, building, installing and maintaining signs has a duty to ensure that every sign is safe.

Now, it has to be said that thousands of signs are built and installed in the UK every year and in the vast majority of cases the work is carried out in a highly professional and very safe manner.  But, it takes only one case to get the industry a bad name.

In the case of the Camden sign, the inquest jury decided that fault lay with the sign owner and the principal building contractor because there were’ deficiencies in communication and project management’ between these two parties and ‘overall there was a lack of defined responsibilities (and) adequate checklists.”

Having read the full report from the inquest, the problem lay not with the sign, but with the substructure it was fixed to.  First installed in 1999 to carry a smaller, lighter sign, this structure consisted of a wooden frame with a plywood face fixed in place by simple panel pins.  Nobody, it would appear, had or took any responsibility for this structure.

  • The owner blamed the main contractor, the sign fitters and the sign maintenance company.
  • The main contractor claimed the need to check the sub-frame was removed from his contract.
  • The sign company said it was ‘entitled’ to assume that the sub-frame was sound and fit for purpose.
  • The sign maintenance company said their remit was to check the sign itself and not how it was fixed to the wall.

The phrase ‘not my job, guv’ comes to mind.

Didn’t any of these professionals notice that something was wrong?

Didn’t anybody think to ask a question or raise an alarm?

Evidently not.

The Heath & Safety expert who investigated the accident highlighted the main reasons the sign fell down.   The screws in the top of the sign did not pass through the plywood face into the load-bearing battens.  Instead they went into thin air – because the frames were originally designed for a smaller sign.  He told the inquest that, had the screws gone into the batten rather than thin air, the sign would still be up today.

He also pointed out that the weather-proofing of the sign was inadequate and degradation of the wooden sub-frame indicated that proper maintenance had not been carried out for several years.

And, as for the plywood face held in place by panel pins he said: “Never in my life have I experienced anything like this being held up by panel pins.”

The inquest jury also heard directly from the man who installed the new sign, some of it at night by the light of a helmet torch.  He told the coroner that he did not believe it was his job to check the safety of the sign backing and thought that another company would report the fact that the sign wasn’t weatherproof.

He said that he assumed the sub-frame was ready for the sign but when asked if he had done anything to make sure the fascia (back-panel) was good enough, he replied “No”.   Asked if he had made sure the batten was in the right place, he gave the same answer. And it was another “No” when asked if he thought it dangerous to screw a sign into plywood without something behind the plywood.

Following the inquest, Mr Marx’s family issued this statement:  “We have been disappointed by the apparent lack of regulation, structured training or even guidance in the sign fixing industry and call on those authorities with the ability to do so to institute measures to try to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.”

The fact is that such legislation does exist.    Signs and similar structures are covered by both Health and Safety and Building Regulations and by Planning Law. The BSGA (British Sign and Graphics Association) has been campaigning fairly constantly over the past couple of years to make its members, and the industry at large, aware of their legal obligations.

However, there is more to it than just what the law says.  There’s the matter of integrity and responsibility.  Whatever a contract may or may not say, if you’re involved in the production and or installation of a sign project and you or your staff think something is not right and that safety may be compromised, you have an absolute duty to bring your concerns to the right authority.

That’s the lesson from Camden.

Most sign makers, fitters and maintenance specialists don’t need the lesson.

But if you are one of the few who reckon ‘it’s not my job’ maybe your talents would be better suited to another industry.

To see the full inquest report visit:

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