On the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, we look at progress in tackling widespread safety failings, and at the wider lessons for OSH professionals.
In September 2021, an article in The Times trailed government plans to demolish the charred remains of Grenfell Tower in west London (Wheeler et al, 2021). The suggestion was greeted with protests from Grenfell United, a group of survivors and bereaved families of the 72 people who died in the fire that engulfed the 24-storey local authority apartment block in June 2017. ‘How can the tower be demolished before the legal process concludes,’ the group asked, ‘when no judge in the land can confirm it won’t hinder future criminal prosecutions?’
No ministerial confirmation of the demolition has followed, but the timescale for the replacement of the building’s skeleton with a memorial is just one of many questions that remain unanswered five years after one of the UK’s worst peacetime catastrophes. Who will pay to remediate fire safety hazards on hundreds of other residential buildings? And will the slew of upcoming regulatory changes be enough to create a safety regime that can prevent further tragedies?
In January, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities Michael Gove proposed new measures to ensure flat owners in mid-rise buildings 11 to 18 metres tall, or 36 to 59ft (typically four to six storeys) are not charged to remove combustible cladding like that on Grenfell Tower, and to make developers fund the estimated £4bn remediation bill. The government has also announced funding to cover residences taller than 18 metres (or 59ft), which are classed as ‘higher risk’ after the Grenfell fire.
But hazardous cladding is only the most prominent of a range of fire safety failings exposed at Grenfell that may leave residential block occupants across the UK at risk. Others include combustible material on balconies, breached fire compartmentation (intended to keep fires spreading between residences) and inadequate smoke ventilation systems. It is still not clear where the rest of the estimated £15bn needed to remedy these hazards, according to an estimate by the parliamentary Housing, Communities and Local Government committee (2020), will come from.
There have been numerous tweaks to the regulatory system to close gaps identified by Grenfell, including the Fire Safety Act 2021, which revised the responsible person’s duties under the Fire Safety Order, including confirmation that these extend to exterior walls (see Grenfell Tower response, below).
But the major changes will happen after the Building Safety Bill becomes law this year. A phased introduction of elements of the new regime, based on Dame Judith Hackitt’s review recommendations, will tighten the processes for approving buildings and the people and products involved in their construction and maintenance.
Overseers: A new regulator
A major change recommended by the Hackitt review was the creation of a Building Safety Regulator (BSR) in England to oversee the safety of high-rise residential buildings under construction and in use, and promoting improved competence among construction professionals and the building control profession. The Building Safety Bill will turn the recommendation into law and the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is due to take on the BSR role. The HSE is already operating as BSR in ‘shadow’ form, advising on implementation of the bill and secondary legislation, and providing industry guidance on safety and other issues.
The HSE’s funding has been cut by more than a third over the past 10 years, but it will not have to manage the BSR role with existing resources. It was given £16.4m to cover the work in the financial year 2020-21.
The BSR will act as the sole building control body for all higher-risk buildings. It will also sign off building plans for higher-risk buildings – those with seven or more storeys or that are at least 18 metres tall (59ft), with two or more residential units, or are hospitals or care homes – as fit to construct, and then the final construction as safe for occupation. It will have powers to prosecute duty holders for ignoring compliance notices or providing false information and will be able to order unsafe building products to be taken off the market.
Up to the job
Dame Judith Hackitt’s review and the Grenfell inquiry have both highlighted the risks posed by a lack of knowledge about ensuring fire safety among key actors, from architects to fire risk assessors.
The Competence Steering Group (CSG), representing more than 150 organisations, recommended that working groups introduce or enhance the competence of 12 professions and trades, from system installers and construction supervisors to fire risk assessors, especially for high-risk buildings, in its report Setting the bar (CSG, 2020). Overseeing the implementation of the CSG’s recommendations will fall to the new Building Safety Regulator (BSR) – see A new regulator below – when the Bill becomes law, including the establishment of an industry competence committee, which will challenge professional and trade bodies to fill gaps in existing frameworks and draft guidance to duty holders on how to choose competent people.
In advance of these developments, new codes have been developed for specific disciplines. The Royal Institute of British Architects has produced new guidance for members on health and safety, both on site and in building design – including fire safety – and in November 2021 launched a mandatory online Health and Life Safety Competency Test based on the guidance. A new approved code of practice for fire risk assessors emphasises the need for assessors to be accredited and for them to have a thorough understanding of the characteristics of particular types of building – such as multi-occupied high-rise residential homes – before taking on assessment work for that building type (Fire Sector Federation, 2020).
Malcolm Shiels is package safety health and environment manager at Costain and chair of IOSH’s Construction Group. He says the detail of the duty holder roles and the new competence requirements will encourage people to meet the standards, because they will no longer be able to dodge responsibility in the event of a failure, and the HSE, as BSR, will be able to prosecute with the threat of prison and unlimited fines. ‘The legislation is clearly framed so that if, heaven forbid, something similar happened, it would be easier for the regulator and ministers to point the finger at individuals,’ he says. The implications of the competence requirements for eligibility for professional insurance, which are increased in the Bill, will narrow the field of people willing to take on key roles in the construction process such as the principal designer duties under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. ‘It will be a smaller pond but a more competent one,’ he says.
‘The legislation is clearly framed to make it easier for the regulator to point the finger at individuals’
Dr Brian Cox, who represents the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Construction and Building Services Division on the CSG working group, says the competence issue extends beyond the professions and trades contributing to building safety, but to making sure everyone understands the new regime the Bill will usher in. ‘There’s a lot of training to be done to achieve the kind of culture change Dame Judith talked about,’ he says.
Timeline: Grenfell Tower response
14 June Grenfell Tower fire 15 June Police investigation launched
29 June Grenfell Tower Inquiry announced
28 July Independent review of building regulations and fire safety (Hackitt review) launched
17 May Hackitt review final report
30 October Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 1 report published
28 January Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 2 hearings begin
20 July Draft Building Safety Bill published
29 April Fire Safety Act passed
April Building Safety Act received Royal Assent
(expected) Staged implementation of various Building Safety Act provisions
An issue that has recurred in the second stage of the Grenfell inquiry is whether an appropriate distance was maintained between the certification and building control bodies and the companies whose products and projects they authorise. One example was highlighted in evidence given by former employees of the National House Building Council (NHBC) that the organisation continued to give building control approvals to projects using the manufacturer Kingspan’s K15 combustible insulation – which was used on part of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment – despite internal concerns that the product was hazardous. In February, John Lewis, a former NHBC fire engineer, told the inquiry that although he suspected Kingspan of withholding evidence about K15 failing fire tests, the NHBC accepted proposals to use the insulation on high-rises.
‘Independence was lost,’ says Malcolm of the building control and product regulators. ‘The arrangements became too cosy. The commercial elements in the decision-making process took precedence over others. If you didn’t work in construction and you looked at these bodies, and what they say they stand for, you would think: “They are a third-party body and if I’m buying a storeys-high apartment they are there to protect me and ensure building work is carried out to a high standard.” But because of the payment mechanisms they could almost put themselves out of business with some clients if they had done what they ought to have been doing.’
It’s not clear if measures such as the BSR’s ability to ban unsafe construction products or the removal of the ability for high-rise developers to ‘shop’ for building control approvers will be enough to offset this closeness between the gatekeepers and those seeking to pass through.
Investigations: The review and the inquiry
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is chaired by ex-Court of Appeal judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, while former GB Health and Safety Executive chair Dame Judith Hackitt (above) chaired the independent review of building regulations and fire safety. The inquiry’s remit is to investigate the events of the fire and the circumstances that made it possible. The phase 1 report findings, published in 2019, found that combustible cladding and insulation materials were instrumental in allowing the fire to spread quickly from a single flat to the whole building. The inquiry’s second stage is still under way, taking evidence on certification and approval of building products and the control regime.
The Hackitt review took evidence in late 2017 on the adequacy of measures to assure the safety of high-rise residential buildings during the planning and construction stages and in operation. Its final report in May 2018 recommended ‘gateways’ at which a residential building over 10 storeys had to gain regulatory approval before construction or occupation could proceed. Other recommendations included the establishment of a new authority to oversee stricter enforcement of the building safety regime and a clear duty holder for the safety of residents of high-rises. Most of the Hackitt review’s recommendations, some in modified form, were incorporated into the Building Safety Bill currently going through parliament, along with some of those concerning information provision to residents recommended by the Moore-Bick inquiry.
Held to account
Many of the new building safety regime’s provisions apply to new-build higher-risk buildings. But for all buildings in occupation, whenever they were built, there will be a new duty holder – the accountable person – representing the building’s owner. They will be responsible for satisfying the BSR that a building is safe for occupation. They will have to gain a safety certificate from the BSR by submitting a ‘safety case’ report. The report must contain risk assessments for fire and structural threats, building condition reports, and detailed descriptions of active and passive fire controls. The HSE in its role as shadow BSR has already issued guidance on safety case principles for buildings in its scope.
The safety case regime has been well established for high-hazard installations such as oil and gas platforms and chemical plants for decades. ‘We think it will be quite a bit simpler because a residential building is comparatively simple from an engineering point of view,’ says Brian. ‘But it’s a bit more complex from an operational point of view because it is full of residents.’
Does he believe the safety case requirement will go a long way to ensuring high-rise residential buildings remain compliant with the building regulations? ‘Once it is operational it will,’ he says, ‘but it is obviously going to take the BSR several years to get through all these buildings.’ An estimated 12,500 buildings in England are expected to be covered by the requirements (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2021).
The consultation between the tenant management organisation and Grenfell Tower residents during the building’s refurbishment was poorly handled, with legitimate concerns about fire safety brushed aside. ‘If we can implement the legislation as it’s meant, it should help individual householders who live in high-risk buildings,’ says Malcolm. ‘It will give them a much bigger say in everything from access to information to involvement in refurbishment schemes.’
‘Conversations show people aren’t aware of this and aren’t taking any notice’
Malcolm says the shock effect of the Grenfell disaster on most duty holders and sector organisations, and the regulatory changes in train, should be enough to make a future disaster in a high-rise very unlikely. His only caveat is how far the changes in attitudes and standards will reach through supply chains. ‘People in the SME market aren’t aware of this and aren’t taking any notice,’ he says. ‘They just want to go to work, earn their money and go home.’ If that remains the case, the maintenance of building safety will depend on how those smaller contractors are instructed and monitored by other duty holders.
Some do not share even Malcolm’s qualified optimism. Gill Kernick is a safety consultant specialising in high-hazard industries. Her book Catastrophe and systemic change: learning from the Grenfell Tower fire and other disasters, was published in 2021. Her close attention to the fire and the government’s response was partly driven by her residency in Grenfell Tower between 2011 and 2014, and the deaths of seven of her former neighbours in the disaster.
What is needed is systemic change, she says. ‘A systemic approach would require grappling with some messy issues,’ Gill writes. ‘Issues such as the role of political lobbying by product manufacturers, the independence of self-funding testing and certification bodies, the trade-offs being made under the guise of sustainability, and the limitations of siloed governance and regulations.’
She argues a systemic approach would adopt principles that create safety, not by adding layers of rules to eliminate unsafe conditions and acts, but by modelling what creates safe conditions and building a regime around those principles. Gill says she had hoped Gove’s proposals to make developers and construction companies take responsibility for remediation of residential fire hazards might have signalled more of a coordinated approach, but ‘rather than a “coming together” from all stakeholders and collaboratively creating solutions that are palatable to all, we’re seeing government edicts that are rejected or fought against by the insurance industry or developers.’
Legislation: Fire Safety Act
The UK Fire Safety Act clarifies the parts of a premises that apply under the Fire Safety Order (FSO). The FSO applies to all non-domestic premises in England and Wales. These include multi-occupied residential buildings, such as blocks of flats, although individual flats are excluded. Responsibility for complying with the FSO falls on the Responsible Person, which may be the freeholder, management company or managing agent, depending on local arrangements.
The new legislation states that, where a building contains two or more sets of domestic premises, the FSO applies to:
- The building’s structure and external walls (including windows, balconies, cladding, insulation and fixings) and any common parts
- All doors between domestic premises and common parts, such as entrance doors (or any other relevant door).
If contracting out this work, you must make sure that those engaged to complete the fire risk assessment include these elements, as you are responsible for complying with the FSO and liable for any necessary remediation.
A Responsible Person is responsible for overseeing the removal or reduction of fire hazards in their building and for implementing reasonable measures to ensure the safety of all residents, those employed to work in the building and visitors to the building.
Fire and rescue authorities can issue enforcement notices if they decide Responsible Persons or duty holders have failed to comply with any FSO provisions. They can prosecute or serve alteration or prohibition notices if they identify that failing to comply with those provisions puts people at risk of death or injury from fire.
For guidance, see addendum to the Fire Safety Act: bit.ly/FSA-addendum
Five years on, many of the processes the Grenfell Tower fire set in train have yet to conclude. The inquiry is in its second phase. A police investigation is not expected to result in criminal charges, if any, until the inquiry report is issued. The major provisions of the Building Safety Bill are still to take effect. And thousands of apartment block residents still live in uncertainty about who will pay to make their homes safe.
Malcolm hopes the building industry could see the overhaul in safety as a potential lever for the sea change needed to realise other priorities, such as decarbonisation and the provision of more homes. ‘Out of all that heartache we have an opportunity to make big steps of improvement. If we can get the right leaders to pull all those strands together and support the Bill, there is a great opportunity.’
He says the most important lesson OSH professionals can learn from Grenfell is to steer organisations away from the belief that the cheapest option is the best one, and he encourages them to use their widening skills base to influence commercial decisions. He also recommends that members working in organisations likely to commission building or refurbishment work in the coming years make themselves familiar with the Building Safety Bill and other regulatory changes: ‘At some point their employer is going to come to them and ask them questions about it.’
Ruth Wilkinson, IOSH head of health and safety, says: ‘Whether working within the construction industry, as building owners, clients, OSH professionals or regulators, everyone should act now to ensure the right resource, knowledge and competence is with the right people for their roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.’
BSM requirement to be scrapped
As IOSH magazine was going to print, the government announced its intention to remove the legal duty to appoint a building safety manager. As the dutyholder for high-rise residential buildings, accountable persons must determine how best to meet the duties placed on them and what arrangement they require. To read more about the changes, visit ioshmagazine.com/bsm
Construction Industry Council. (2020) Setting the bar: a new competence regime for building a safer future. (accessed 14 March 2022).
Fire Sector Federation. (2020) Approved code of practice. (accessed 14 March 2022).
House of Commons. (2020) Cladding: progress on remediation. (accessed 14 March 2022).
Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. (2021) Building Safety Programme: estimates of EWS1 requirements on residential buildings in England. (accessed 14 March 2022).
Wheeler C, Al-Khalaf L, Gadher D. (2021) Grenfell Tower to be torn down amid safety fears. The Sunday Times. (accessed 14 March 2022).