In preparation for the change, the head of safety at a university took his freshly drawn-up set of fire risk assessments to his local fire authority, which previously had the task of certifying the premises, and asked if an officer familiar with the campus would give an informal opinion on whether they were sufficient or needed more work.
When reminded that it was no longer the fire service’s job, the OSH head persisted until the officer told him: “If you have a fire and we prosecute you afterwards, then you’ll know your assessment wasn’t good enough.”
The blaze that engulfed the west London local-authority high-rise Grenfell Tower last month, leaving an estimated 79 people dead or missing, and the public response, shows such a lagging test of precautions is not an acceptable response to the scale of the hazard.
The catastrophe raises many questions that may be answered by either the police and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation or the planned public inquiry. Some of them are specific to Grenfell Tower and those managing it. They include whether the block’s fire risk assessment was updated to reflect its recent refurbishment and whether its smoke extraction system functioned properly or exacerbated problems when getting residents out.
Other issues raised since the disaster have a wider scope. Have the cladding and other retrofitted measures to improve the thermal insulation of older blocks unwittingly increased their fire loading? Does the standard fire service advice to high-rise residents to stay in their flats in a fire need further qualification?
But there is also a much broader question. That is whether a decade and more of public sector budget cuts and a “light touch” regulatory approach increased the likelihood of a major incident. The slowness of the government to overhaul the fire prevention section of the Building Regulations, flagged as confusing and in need of reform four years ago by the inquiry into the fire that claimed six lives at another London public housing block, Lakanal House, may be evidence that they did.
Former HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger has warned in the past year of the cycle of gradual deregulation that is arrested only by a major catastrophe, to be followed by tighter controls, before memory of the reason for their necessity fades.
Grenfell Tower has already prompted an unprecedented joint call on government by IOSH and other UK safety bodies, inspired by former 2012 Olympics safety head Lawrence Waterman, to cease safety deregulation.
Whether the fire marks an inflexion point on the scale of the Flixborough or Hillsborough disasters is not yet clear, but we owe it to the victims to try to break the pattern of history repeating.