Five years from Grenfell - work in progress - Copy

Five years from Grenfell – work in progress

Fire risk is common to all industries, from oil and gas to insurance broking. In lower-risk, white collar sectors it is almost the only risk with the potential for multiple fatalities that has more than negligible probability. And yet five years’ on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, concerns remain that systemic weakness in regulation and reform have left key risks untouched.

The shockwaves that spread after the Grenfell Tower fire took the lives of 72 people in west London were followed by a close scrutiny of fire protection regulation and codes and a programme of reform that is still underway, even after the Building Safety Act gained Royal Assent in April.

The Building Safety Act is intended to enable various pieces of “daughter” legislation to be passed in the coming years. The provisions include a series of gateways in building projects where the design and construction must be signed off as safe before they can proceed. Safety case reports, similar to those required for high-hazard installations such as oil and gas terminals, must be prepared for buildings and approved by the new Building Safety Regulator.

Most of the Act’s provisions don’t affect the majority of health and safety managers , because they are restricted to high-rise residential buildings. Understandably in the light of the Grenfell fire, these were classed as “higher risk” buildings in former Health and Safety Executive chair Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety.

But those restrictions are not set in stone. There is already pressure for some of the provisions to be extended to low-rise multi-occupancy buildings, especially those with vulnerable residents such as care homes. It is easy to imagine parts of the new regime being extended beyond accommodation, though it would be tragic if the trigger was a high-profile fire at some non-residential premises with many occupants.

But some post-Grenfell changes are set to have an impact on fire safety, regardless of building type. OSH managers contracting fire specialists such as risk assessors, should be able to rest more securely on their expertise.

When it came into force in 2006, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order was intended to overhaul and simplify fire laws and introduce a sequence of regulatory reforms tidying up piecemeal regulation on various topics.

Most importantly, the Fire Safety Order was intended to bring fire safety risk management into line with other areas of safety regulation in shifting the responsibility to the dutyholder (in this case whoever owned or had control of a premises) to assess and control the risks. Under the old regime the fire services would diligently check and certify dutyholders’ arrangements, in a way that no regulator would do for risk controls for, say, work at height[AC1] .

But many of the people who no longer had the safety net of the fire service to check their calculations were not used to managing other areas of safety risk. When they became the “responsible person” for managing fire risk under the Fire Safety Order they were supposed to make sure the technical arrangements were carried out by a “competent person”. But exactly what constituted competence, particularly for certain building types – a supermarket has a different fire risk profile than an office – was not clearly defined.

Post-Grenfell professional bodies have done much to beef up the competence requirements for anyone with a role in fire safety, from architects to risk assessors. Even more will be done by the HSE as Building Safety Regulator, checking for gaps in the professional bodies’ competency frameworks.

The result is likely to be a smaller number of better qualified or more experienced people offering their services to dutyholders, and not just those managing high-risk buildings. Consultants as assessors who don’t meet the new standards will find it hard to get professional insurance.

The magnitude of the Grenfell disaster is also apparent in widespread backfilling to remind people of their duties under existing legislation. In July the HSE published a revised version of its guidance on fire safety in construction – HSG168. The first page of the guidance now states that anyone taking on the principal designer role under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) needs to review proposed construction methods and materials at the planning stage to check that they reduce fire risk.

It goes on: “It is essential to consider fire safety measures throughout all stages of the design and procurement process and to implement them effectively during the construction phase.” Since CDM was intended to be all about reduction and communication of risk in construction, the role of dutyholders in managing fire risk might have seemed too obvious to be worth stating to the authors of the previous editions of HSG168. Not any more.

But for all the changes, there is a systemic weakness that the reforms have not adequately tackled which could let a catastrophic fire penetrate the defences.. The commercialisation of regulatory responsibilities for building safety creates a continuing risk, whether it is the Building Research Establishment being paid by manufacturers to certify construction products or the competition between building control officers to sign off project plans. The risk is regulatory capture, where the commercial imperative erodes the distance between the regulator and the regulated.

In the last phase of the Grenfell inquiry, a fire engineer working for the National House Building Council (NHBC) admitted that in the years before Grenfell the body kept approving projects using insulation boards which subsequently clad the tower, despite worries that the manufacturer might be withholding evidence about its combustibility. The engineer said that the NHBC had been mindful of its role in an industry that works “by a process of collaboration between all parties: the designers, the constructors and the regulator – the goalkeeper.”

“But if the goalkeeper is collaborating with the striker,” asked Richard Millet, the counsel for the inquiry, “what happens to the match?”. Whatever reassurance the post-Grenfell reforms offer on improved fire safety regulation, Millet’s question highlights a problem that has yet to be resolved.

Guest blog written by writer, editor and speaker, Louis Wustemann