Though they lived an ocean apart, brothers John and Mark Coles were close.
Mark, a businessman who lives in New York City, often flies to London for work or leisure, and John was always there to greet him.
“John worked in Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, so he was always the first person I saw after I landed and the last person I saw on my way back to New York,” Mark told UniteLive.
John, a senior aircraft technician for British Airways, had worked at Heathrow since he started as an apprentice at 16.
“He absolutely loved his job,” Mark said.
But on Valentine’s Day last year, just another day on the job would for John end in tragedy.
A Heathrow airside safety vehicle, driving well above the speed limit of 40 mph, collided with John’s van at a Terminal 5 vehicle crossing. The side impact of the collision badly damaged John’s van and the internal injuries he sustained required treatment at a hospital.
John lay in his crushed vehicle for over 30 minutes. With no medical centre at Heathrow, he was taken on a longboard to a very small gate room used by his colleagues to dispatch aircraft.
Despite John complaining of chest pains, difficulty breathing and a large cut on his head, Heathrow failed to communicate the extent of the incident and injuries to the ambulance service. It took more than an hour for an ambulance to reach him, by which time he had gone into cardiac arrest from internal bleeding. He died at the age of 44.
“John’s accident was completely preventable – it should not have happened,” said Mark, who is now working with Unite in campaigning for an independent inquiry into airside safety at Heathrow.
Unite’s campaign, which launched last Friday (May 10), is aiming to make sure that what happened to John never happens to any Heathrow airport worker ever again.
Reports into John’s death point to failings with Heathrow’s safety systems and emergency medical response procedures, which could have been a factor in his death.
Unite reps at Heathrow report that airside safety at Heathrow is currently not ‘fit for purpose’ resulting in minor accidents and frequent near misses. Heathrow’s own safety alerts reveal frequent issues including several involving vehicles.
Mark, who spoke alongside Unite regional secretary Peter Kavanagh, Labour MP for Slough Tan Dhesi and Samantha Hemsley of Thompsons Solicitors, said he’s motivated to campaign for airside safety in memory of his brother.
“John’s death turned my family’s life upside down – we lost a loving brother, uncle and son. And for my parents, who are in their late seventies and who John lived with, they lost a carer too. They’ve had to do the unthinkable – bury their own child.”
Mark’s ineffable grief has fuelled his anger at the lack of sufficient airside safety at the UK’s largest airport.
“Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world – its 75,000 workers serve about 220,000 passengers each and every day. How does an airport that has the equivalent population of a small city and by its nature have a higher probability of medical emergencies not have a dedicated airside ambulance service?”
At the moment, Heathrow must share London ambulances with the local community – in contrast to, for example, Dublin airport, a much smaller airport, that has its own airside ambulances.
Mark has also called for an overhaul of airside safety procedures to ensure that those procedures are followed to the letter – and that the workforce is listened to.
“Heathrow has not followed up with airside employees reporting serious safety concerns they have been involved in, including near misses involving the kind of vehicles that killed my brother,” he said.
Mark has appealed to Heathrow to improve safety at the airport for passengers and workers alike, but so far the airport’s response he believes amounts to nothing more than mere window-dressing
“All they’ve done so far is put up safety posters and bumper stickers, develop meaningless taglines like ‘We are Safety’ and do a bit of social media outreach,” he said. “This isn’t action; this is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.”
Mark hopes Unite’s campaign will be the catalyst for real change.
“John himself was a trade union rep and I strongly believe that a safety campaign like the one we’ve launched is what he would have wanted,” he said. “Trade unions are the most important vehicle for advocating workers’ rights. In a climate where health and safety isn’t taken seriously, trade unions standing up for employees are absolutely necessary.”
Unite regional officer Peter Kavanagh called on Heathrow Airport to act.
“It is essential that Heathrow agrees to an independent inquiry in order to secure the support of all workers operating at the airport,” he said.
“Without an independent inquiry whose findings are swiftly acted on, there is a genuine prospect of further serious accidents at the airport.
“No one should be asked to go to work and put themselves into a potentially dangerous situation.”