‘I survived a traumatic construction accident but neglecting my mental health nearly killed me’
By Neil Gerrard20 July 2023
Trigger warning: The following article discusses sensitive topics related to mental health, alcohol abuse, and suicidal thoughts. This article aims to provide information and support but may contain content that some readers find difficult.
Steven Kirby never expected to be involved in a construction accident.
But in January 2011, he narrowly cheated death when a pipe undergoing a hydrostatic pressure test exploded in the trench he was standing in.
Miraculously, he survived with physical injuries far less serious than they could have been.
The mental scars the incident inflicted took far longer to heal.
The path Kirby has taken to recovery has left him devoted to helping other people with their mental health.
And it also leaves him with important lessons to share when it comes to approaching potentially dangerous situations in the workplace and reporting incidents after they have occurred.
Kirby worked in construction and demolition in the UK for 20 years, eventually becoming an operator of several different classes of construction equipment, including 360° excavators.
Just before Christmas 2010, while working for a civil engineering contractor, he used an excavator to dig a 60m-long trench for 600mm thermally insulated pipe that was part of a new fire hydrant system.
Returning after a two-week break for Christmas, Kirby had more trenches to dig out. But his work couldn’t go ahead until the pipe previously installed underwent hydrostatic pressure testing.
One member of his five-strong team, supplied via a staffing agency, held a card that suggested he had the competence to carry out the test.
It involved filling the pipe with water and pressurising it to 28 bar. Attached to the end of the pipe was a steel spigot end weighing about 460kg. “It was a compression fitting with a small bead weld around the back end of it. It slotted into a collar on the end of the pipe and had 24 nuts and bolts that needed to be tightened up to a set torque. As long as we put it together properly, it couldn’t go anywhere and could handle up to 38 bar of pressure,” Kirby explains.
The day of the incident was cold and as an excavator operator, Kirby took advantage of his warm cab.
But the test didn’t go according to plan. The pressure in the pipe built only very slowly and the spigot end kept leaking, prompting his colleagues to repeatedly tighten different nuts and bolts.
By lunchtime, pressure was still only at 10 bar. “My instinct was telling me that something wasn’t right. It shouldn’t have taken that long,” recalls Kirby.
He recommended checking with the site manager to explain what was happening. Without coming to inspect the pipe himself, the manager checked details on the spigot manufacturer’s website and told the team to carry on.
But as the end of the working day approached, the pressure was still only 18 bar, leaving another 10 to go. Not wanting to finish work late, Kirby, a bodybuilder and physically stronger than some of his colleagues, decided to have a go tightening all 24 nuts and bolts himself.
Donning a safety harness, he jumped into the trench, in front of the spigot end. And it was just as he reached up for the spanners to tighten the bolts that the pipe exploded.
Somehow, the spigot end missed Kirby and hit the bucket at the end of his excavator’s arm, which was hanging into the trench. The force was sufficient to turn his excavator around but it shielded another water pipe under 8 bar of pressure behind it from rupturing.
“I remember reaching for the spanners and then my next memory is I’m trapped under water – I have got no idea where I am. I thought I was in the Humber, the local river,” he says.
Unable to get his bearings, he screamed for his family, including his two young boys.
Kirby fell unconscious but was pulled out of the water after about 40 seconds by a colleague.
His boiler suit and harness were blown clean off shoulders. His boots were found 20 feet (six metres) away. The blast hyper-extended his arms and legs. He needed 8-9 stiches in the back of his head and suffered a small fracture to the face below his nose, as well as having pieces of pipe bedding embedded in his face and head.
Nonetheless, he says, “Physically, I was really lucky.” The head of safety at another major contractor told him, “Nobody survives this type of incident – even if the pipe doesn’t hit you, the percussion from the blast is enough to stop your heart.”
It turned out that there was air trapped in the pipe, which explained the slow pressure build-up. The site had flooded over Christmas and the pipes, laid in four-metre sections and connected by collars, had settled in such a way that they were no longer level.
Meanwhile, the team wasn’t trained to tighten the bolts to the correct torque and had overtightened them, damaging the bead weld and weakening the bolts.
“Because the air was trapped in there, we had literally created a cannon,” he remarks.
The mental health impact
Kirby required physiotherapy for a long time and still has trouble with his feet and lower back.
Despite being in a lot of pain and discomfort, he discharged himself from hospital that evening to see his boys.
But he hadn’t considered the mental health impact. In fact, up until that point, he had been largely dismissive of mental health concerns.
“I never believed in depression up until my accident,” he says. “If a colleague was off for three weeks because he was depressed, I was the one saying, ‘it’s just an excuse to stay off’.
“I was brought up on a council estate in Hull. In our area, you couldn’t show emotion because if you did, you would get your head kicked in. Emotion was a sign of weakness.
“And then after the incident, my mental health spiralled drastically.”
The problems started for Kirby on the very first night after he left the hospital. He recounts having nightmares about the incidents, panic attacks where he couldn’t breathe and sweated or shivered heavily.”
Having been told by an occupational nurse that his accident was likely to mean a lengthy period off work, he started drinking, initially to “take the edge off” and because the pain relief he was taking wasn’t working.
That led to months of heavy drinking along with gambling prompted by money fears related to not working. He also found himself taking loans he knew he would be unable to pay back.
His partner of the time expressed her concern. Kirby told her he was fine. “But in my head, I was broken,” he said.
He reached a point where he started believing that he was supposed to have died that day, and even considered suicide by jumping off the local Humber bridge. Fortunately, his fear of water and of drowning as a result of the incident meant he retreated from the idea.
Matters came to a head when his partner issued him with an ultimatum: See a doctor or move out.
Kirby started packing a bag but didn’t want to leave his children.
Eventually, got help he needed for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.
Slowly, things started to improve and Kirby took steps to admit to himself that he needed help.
A counsellor suggested he research mindfulness. After initially laughing off the idea, he got serious and started researching. That led to further exploration into breathing exercises, meditation, self-hypnosis and other techniques to help him deal with the trauma.
So successful were his efforts to deal with his own mental health that Kirby started to reach out and help others on a personal basis.
Eventually, that led to being invited to talk to workers at a major contractor about his experience.
“At first, I had no intention of sharing my story. I am not a public speaker,” Kirby says. But the exercise was very successful.
It has led to Kirby setting up his own life coaching business, SKLifeCoach UK, offering one-on-one sessions to help people deal with their personal struggles, as well as speaking to workers at companies not just in construction but now outside the sector, including with major businesses like Amazon.
“I am not a tough man by any means but I was brought up to be tough and it nearly killed me. The accident nearly killed me, but then my attitude to mental health nearly got me as well,” Kirby says.
“Luckily, I reached and now I understand we need to talk about our emotions because if we don’t, they just keep bottling up to the point where we blow in one way or another.”
He is pleased to see the progress in construction on mental health but stresses that initiatives like having mental health first aiders on site are only effective if employees have the confidence to use them.
He suggests that this could be that people struggling with an alcohol or gambling problem may feel reluctant to open up to colleagues for fear of losing their job.
“You need to explain to people that if they are drinking too much and they come to you, you will help them and put something in place for them, and that they are not going to lose their job,” he asserts.
Openness on accidents and near misses key
Kirby also stresses how important it is for construction companies to be open and thorough when investigating and reporting accidents and near misses.
He doesn’t feel that this was the case with his own accident. After the explosion, he was taken in an on-site ambulance to the client’s own healthcare facility, where he felt the attention he received was inadequate.
It was only later, when he was sent to a local minor injuries unit and the nurse there directed him straight to the accident and emergency department, that he ended up in hospital.
He believes this is where he should have been sent from the start but thinks that the client and contractor were keen to keep the emergency services out of the situation in case it was reported to the UK’s health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
As it happened, it was only years later when Kirby tried to obtain photos to illustrate his experience and lodged a freedom of information request with the HSE for the details of his case that he discovered his incident had never been officially reported.
He believes that managers on the project were financially incentivised to maintain a clean safety record and that this well-intentioned arrangement led to key learnings about the accident being missed.
And he now knows of similar incidents on other that have been fatal.
“If it had all been reported to the HSE properly and they had done their own investigation, there would have been some kind of safety briefing news recommending an exclusion zone. It was a missed opportunity because it wasn’t reported,” he says.
“That’s why we’ve got to report everything, no matter how small or big it is. Because the only way we can learn from something is by talking about it and reporting it.”
And he offers these words of advice for any worker who questions the safety of a situation they find themselves in.
“We do sometimes put ourselves in a dangerous position, whether it is through complacency or because someone tells us it is safe. But if you are having to tell yourself ‘it’ll be ok’, that is your instinct telling you it might not be. So if there is anything like that on your site, stop what you are doing because your life and your health are worth more than your job.”
Who to call in a crisis
The Lighthouse Club provides financial or wellbeing support in the UK and Ireland - call their 24/7 confidential Construction Industry Helpline for help now on 0345 609 1956 in the UK, and 1800 939 122 in Ireland.
Mates In Construction offers a free, confidential helpline in Australia available 24/7 on 1300 642 111 or 0800 111 315 in New Zealand.
The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention refers those in crisis to The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US which provides immediate help on 1-800-273-TALK (8255)