Tragic events at Grenfell Tower in June 2017 have once again raised the profile of issues around fire safety. An inquiry and police investigation continue to examine the circumstances of that specific case, and work continues to ensure the safety of high-rise buildings.

In parallel, Dame Judith Hackitt was asked by the Government to carry out an independent review of building regulations and fire safety, drawing on her extensive experience in the Chemicals industry and then as Chair of the Health and Safety Executive. The review’s aims are to consider the existing regulatory system and to make recommendations on a future system that will provide standards and assurance for residents – with a particular focus on high-rise residential buildings, but whose findings and recommendations are likely to have wider resonance and applicability.

In December 2017, the Review team produced their interim report and set up a range of working groups. The chairs of these groups met at the end of March as a prelude to the production of a final report later on in 2018.

Although the full report is still to come, Dame Judith made her views quite clear about some of the issues affecting the industry, the likely direction of travel for the Review and what steps could be taken to learn from the work so far.

Initial findings included that the fire was accelerated by the building’s exterior cladding system. Further checks suggested that aluminium composite materials in widespread use did not meet the limited combustibility requirements set out in building regulations. Concerns were further exacerbated when materials fell from a building in Glasgow, calling into question the adequacy of the design of the cladding system in use. Checks revealed further matters of concern.

You can read “Building a Safer Future: Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Interim Report” by clicking here The report includes a map of how the current regulatory system should work in practice – creating this map was a significant aid to the team in understanding the scope for improvement and the approach could be applied to other regulatory frameworks. Click here to see the map.

Whilst welcoming the scale and nature of the contributions received, Dame Judith pulls no punches in setting out her opinion of their findings to date, and it is worth reading some of her key points in her own words, to get a better understanding of the strength of her conclusions and to get an insight into where she sees change being necessary:

“From the very earliest stages of the process, the people we have spoken to have indicated that the current regulatory system falls short of what is required to be effective. While some have argued for specific short-term measures, most have recognised that the current overall system is not working effectively and needs to be overhauled.

Her findings of the way that the construction industry works compares poorly in some cases with her experience of the chemical industry, with its strong focus on clear specifications, reviews and record keeping, including the handover to those who will be operationally responsible.

“After some four months leading this review, it is clear that this same systematic, controlled approach to construction, refurbishment and management of occupied buildings is not by any means universal. There is plenty of good practice but it is not difficult to see how those who are inclined to take shortcuts can do so. Change control and quality assurance are poor throughout the process. What is initially designed is not what is being built, and quality assurance of materials and people is seriously lacking”.

“As the review has progressed, it has become clear that the whole system of regulation, covering what is written down and the way in which it is enacted in practice, is not fit for purpose, leaving room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so”.

“I have been shocked by some of the practices I have heard about and I am convinced of the need for a new intelligent system of regulation and enforcement for high-rise and complex buildings which will encourage everyone to do the right thing and will hold to account those who try to cut corners”.

She criticises those in responsible positions who wait for someone else to tell them what to do – instead of taking ownership and responsibility. Instead of waiting, decision-makers should act now to ensure that contractors are competent and that work is quality assured.

“My focus is to create a better system for the future which will be easier to work with, deliver better solutions everywhere and rebuild confidence”.

Key findings of the interim report include:

  • The current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose, and stems both from the culture of the construction industry and the effectiveness of the regulators
  • Current regulations and guidance are too complex and unclear, which can lead to confusion and differences of interpretation
  • Even when requirements are set out, it is not always clear who is actually responsible for ensuring that they are met
  • The assessment of competence is not adequate – for instance, little account appears to be taken of the specific requirements associated with high-rise and other complex buildings
  • Compliance, enforcement and sanctions processes are too weak, and do not drive the appropriate behaviours
  • The system of product testing, marketing and quality assurance is not clear.

The Review uses this as the framework for its future direction of travel, with the final report due later in 2018, and is expected to focus in detail on:

  • Greater clarity around regulation and guidance, and with a greater responsibility placed on the construction sector to specify solutions rather than expecting the Government to do so
  • Greater clarity over roles and responsibilities, throughout the whole life cycle of a building
  • Raising levels of competence and establishing formal accreditation
  • Creating a “golden thread” for complex buildings including high-rise residential buildings, covering design and any changes to ensure that they are recorded and properly reviewed
  • Creating a stronger and more effective enforcement approach, including stronger sanctions
  • Ensuring quality assurance of products

A number of working groups were set up to take forward these themes, meeting several times over a six week period. In addition to the members of the individual groups, the group chairs were encouraged to consult as widely as possible. At the end of March 2018, the chairs of these groups joined Dame Judith at a summit to share progress. We look forward to seeing the detail of the final report, and the Government’s response in due course.

What it means for the NHS

The report findings are likely to be relevant for the NHS both in terms of its relationships with the construction and maintenance industries, but also in raising the profile of the importance of taking steps to ensure that facilities are safe from the outset, and throughout the life of the facility. As Dame Judith has said, decision-makers cannot wait around for someone else to tell them what is the right thing to do.

NHS colleagues will be well aware of the risks posed by fire, and their potential consequences. Public concern about fire is now heightened, and it makes it even more crucial that the NHS can provide – and receive - assurance about the safety of its own buildings and services.

In the wake of the tragedy, NHS Improvement asked NHS bodies for information and then urgently to review the safety of their own facilities. Initially, a number of Trusts flagged up the need for further review. According to NHS Improvement, all those identifying a potential problem introduced a range of measures including additional fire safety precautions such as 24-hour fire wardens, whilst further checks were undertaken. Reports suggest that only three used the cladding implicated in the disaster and that these were in buildings not used by patients and that action was being taken to remove the cladding.

This incident shone a spotlight on the issues of fire safety, but there is an on-going need for vigilance both to identify issues and to address them promptly.

The Responsible Person

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO) makes it clear that there are significant responsibilities for anyone who has control of premises or anyone who has a degree of control over certain areas or systems - the ‘Responsible Person’. The Responsible Person must as far as is reasonably practical make sure that everyone on the premises, or nearby, can escape safely if there is a fire.

If you are the Responsible Person, you must make sure you carry out a fire risk assessment although you can pass this task to some other “Competent Person”. However, you will still be responsible, in law, for meeting the requirements of the Order: if a ‘Competent Person’ is engaged the Responsible Person must ensure they are adequately skilled and with sufficient knowledge and experience to conduct such assessments.

Failure to execute an appropriate risk assessment could result in the enforcing authorities acting against the Responsible Person, which in severe cases could result in a custodial sentence.

The need for a high quality Fire Risk Assessment

It’s therefore clear that it is key that the risk assessment should be done well. Simply ticking the boxes to say a survey has been carried out isn’t sufficient: properly qualified, experienced assessors should be used to ensure the most comprehensive outcome at all times. If they are not, then the Responsible Person is not discharging their duties adequately – and they are also running the risk of a fire and all its severe consequences.