Fire safety regulations in the United Kingdom are among the most stringent in the world. The country generally has high standards when it comes to health and safety, and has the 10th lowest rate of fire deaths by country, at just under 1 per 100,000 persons.
This is why the tragedy on 14 June 2017 at Grenfell Tower in London comes as such a deep shock.
One would be forgiven for mistaking the carcass of the high-rise apartment building for being in the middle of a war zone. At the time of writing, 30 deaths have been confirmed, 18 remain in hospital and another 49 are missing presumed dead. These figures come with the repeated warning that the number of confirmed deaths is, awfully, expected to rise as the building is searched by rescue teams.
The UK Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that there will be a public inquiry into how this disastrous event came about. This means that investigations will be conducted in a public forum and members of the public can make evidential submissions, and listen to evidence given by other parties. There is no indication as of yet to when this will begin, but there are already theories emerging as to why the fire spread so quickly and was able to claim the lives of so many.
New external cladding
Grenfell Tower had recently been refurbished; the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) had hired construction firm Rydon as the lead contractor on the project, which involved re-cladding the exterior of the building. According to the Guardian, at least eight other contractors and sub-contractors were responsible for various elements, making it a disparate process of which the KCTMO would likely not have had full oversight. Rydon has insisted it met fire regulation and health and safety standards on the project.
Most speculation at this point looks toward the cladding that was fitted to Grenfell Tower top to bottom as part of the project in 2016, which may have facilitated the fire to spread at an alarming pace up the outside of the building by creating a “chimney”. Similar cladding has been blamed for multiple high-rise building fires in Dubai and China. However, as with all theories at this point, in the case of Grenfell Tower this remains to be investigated. If found to be significant in fueling the fire the safety of many buildings around the world with such cladding material will be brought into question.
Fire action plan and missing fire doors
Grenfell Tower was built 40 years ago, had no sprinklers (in England, only buildings constructed in 2007 or later require sprinklers), and it’s unclear whether fire doors were fitted throughout.
This brings the spotlight onto the instructions that residents were provided with in the event of a fire. Official, countrywide fire brigade advice to “stay put” in the event of a fire in tower blocks is usually based on the assumption that the building is fitted with fire-proofed doors that would offer protection to residents. However, claims that doors were not fire-proofed in Grenfell Tower has been noted by London Fire Brigade as forming part of its ongoing inquiry into the incident. Although regulations are not retroactive, meaning old buildings do not need to adhere to new standards, the absence of fire doors combined with the "stay put" policy suggests either a major communication error or ill-thought out advice that needs reviewed.
One stair case for the whole building
As the UK is one of the most advanced and safest countries in the world, it may come as a surprise that Grenfell Tower, alike thousands of other tower blocks in the country, only has one staircase throughout the whole building. Policy in other developed countries requires at least two exit routes in high-rises; for example, in the United States, OSHA standards dictate that there be at least two exit routes in workplaces. Many high-rises in the US and Canada also have an evacuation staircase on the outside, to allow people to escape with access to fresh air.
It goes without saying that the evacuation route is one of the most important aspects of fire safety. But with many escapees of Grenfell Tower now suffering with serious smoke inhalation from navigating their way down the only staircase in the building, and with dozens more unable to reach the staircase at all, it seems that the thought was not addressed properly by KCTMO when planning emergency protocol for Grenfell. By extension, UK Building Regulations that don't require at least two exit routes in high-rise apartment buildings don't seem to address it either, and will likely be reviewed.
Under a Freedom of Information request, it was found that the last time Grenfell Tower received a full Fire Risk Assessment was December 2015. Best practice is for such an inspection every 12 months, which would have scheduled Grenfell for another in December 2016. Moreover, it is a requirement to re-conduct a full FRA if there is a “material change” to a building – there is no specification over how soon afterwards, but it has been 13 months since Grenfell Tower was refurbished in May 2016 and, at the time of writing, it does not appear that any safety checks have been carried out since.
Ignored safety concerns
Perhaps the biggest let down of all is that the residents of Grenfell Tower fought for years for their landlord KCTMO to improve fire precautions in the building, but struggled to push through changes. In 2016, it was noted by the Grenfell Action Group that residents did not have sufficient information on what to do in the event of a fire, disputing that the one thing that they were told to do – “stay put” – may lead to loss of life. The Group’s blog details the many attempts made to bring about fire safety improvements in the building over the past seven years.
We must now wait for the outcome of private investigations and the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy in order to get to the bottom of the disastrous incident that has led to dozens of lives lost. Undoubtedly, charges will be brought against organizations involved and under new Sentencing Guidelines for England and Wales published in February 2016, it is likely that individuals will face penalties and perhaps jail time as well.
However, even before inquiries reach their conclusions, the rest of us can learn some important lessons. Health and safety has not ‘gone mad’, as per commonly recited; it is mad not to adhere to best-practice, and, no matter what the reason is, it is mad to ignore safety concerns. When someone voices a worry it is not just the responsibility but should be the will of councils, government, organizations and companies to listen. As EHS professionals around the world know, communication is the most powerful tool in pursuing safety.
In 2017, it should not take even one life lost to give residents’ or – indeed – anyone’s safety concerns a megaphone. Fire expert Sam Webb and many others have been arguing for updates to UK fire safety standards since the 1990s, and in 2015 92% of Fire Sector Federation members called regulations out for being “long overdue an overhaul”. For now, the rest of the country and much of the world stays tuned for the consequences of this terrible but preventable incident.