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Hackitt fire review calls for simpler regulatory structure

The fire safety regime covering high-risk buildings is “not fit for purpose” according to the interim report by the independent review of building regulations and fire safety chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

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Dame Judith Hackitt. Image credit: ©Andrew Firth

High-risk and complex buildings - defined as those “where multiple people live or stay and for which exceptional events could lead to the risk of large-scale fatalities” – are subject to regulations which are too complex and poorly implemented, says the report.

The report calls for “simplified and unambiguous” regulations and guidance on fire safety. It says as an interim measure the government should consider “presentational changes” to improve the clarity of Approved Document B, which accompanies the Building Regulations.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme before the report’s launch Hackitt said of the Building Regulations: “The regulations themselves are pretty simple but what sits below them is a whole series of guidance documents which stacked on top of one another would be two feet high.”

“There is clearly an opportunity to make that much simpler and to guide people to the right answer rather than presenting them with all that information,” she added.

The independent review was commissioned by the government after the Grenfell Tower fire in June. Its call for evidence drew responses from 250 parties, including IOSH.

Its interim report also calls for a change in fire safety culture.

 “At the heart of this required change is a shift of ownership,” says Hackitt. “Despite being advised at the outset that the regulatory system for building was outcomes and performance-based, I have encountered masses of prescription which is complex and in some cases inconsistent. The prescription is largely owned by government, with industry – those who should be the experts in best practice – waiting to be told what to do and some looking for ways to work around it.”

Hackitt says that as chair of the Health and Safety Executive between 2007 and 2016 she saw a shift in construction industry safety led by the regulator and the major employers. “A cultural and behavioural change of similar magnitude” is now required among all those responsible for fire safety, she says, including developers, architects and building owners.

The report calls for the “regular” fire risk assessments required for buildings covered by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to be carried out at least annually or whenever a building is altered. The risk assessments should be shared with residents and the fire service, it recommends.

The mandatory consultation with fire and rescue services on plans for buildings that are covered by the Fire Safety Order “does not work as intended” says the report. Fire service advice is not always followed.

“Consultation by building control bodies and by those commissioning or designing buildings should take place early in the process and fire and rescue service advice should be fully taken into account,” it recommends.

“Responsible persons under the Fire Safety Order are frequently not identified when the building is due to be handed over following construction and therefore people are not aware of their responsibilities,” it notes.

Professional bodies representing fire engineers and risk assessors, building control officers and fire system installers must come up with a system to guarantee the competence of people working on complex buildings, the report recommends.

Responding to the report, IOSH strategic development director Shelley Frost said: “In the consultation, we called for the consideration of mandatory accreditation of fire risk assessors for all high-rises, to ensure standards are as high as they can be.

“Part of this is having the right people making the right decisions – well-trained, competent personnel. With fire safety being a complex issue, systems should be clear, simple to understand and proportionate.

“Without adequate training, will someone know the importance of checking areas out of plain sight, such as above ceilings or in ducts? Will someone know to check if fire doors have been removed? Will someone know to check if renovation work has unintentionally compromised compartmentalisation? 

To end the poor documentation of buildings whose design changes during planning or construction there must be “a golden thread for all complex and high-risk building projects so that the original design intent is preserved and recorded, and any changes go through a formal review process involving people who are competent and who understand the key features of the design”.

Building control bodies must ensure fire safety information for a building is provided by builders or developers to the responsible person for the building in occupation.

The report highlights the fact that there is no requirement in the Building Regulations for buildings to be brought up to the latest fire safety standards, as long as during any refurbishment does not weaken the existing provisions.

Responding to criticisms that some forms of building cladding had not previously been subject to fire testing in situ, the report says the government should “significantly restrict” the use of desktop studies to approve changes to cladding and other systems “to ensure that they are only used where appropriate and with sufficient, relevant test evidence”.

Phase two of the review will focus on specifying a simpler risk-based regulatory system. The report says this revision must not stifle innovation in building design, add disproportionately to costs and build times or burden low-risk, small-scale projects.

Hackitt says she will convene a summit of “key stakeholders” to discuss the new regime early in 2018. Her final report is due in the spring.

Louis Wustemann is editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

Comments

One of the problems we should consider is that The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 covers 'common areas' and does not include private dwellings rather it is the Housing Act 2004. So when a risk assessment is prepared for flats such as Grenfell the risk assessment stops at the residents door. I have encountered flats where the resident has stored highly flammable liquid which can contribute to the significant risks.

"The report calls for the “regular” fire risk assessments required for buildings covered by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to be carried out at least annually or whenever a building is altered".

This does not stop the interval between assessments being in any sense 'annual'. If an FRA is carried out on the first of January 2017, then by bending 'annually', I can wait until 31 December 2018 ans be allowed to claim an 'annual' assessment over an effective interval of 2 years. There needs regularity to the interval, built in.

Perhaps the addition of a time frame similar to that given for Landlords Gas Checks? Fire Risk Assessments should take place within a certain period, up to 13/14 months perhaps, of the last review and assessment.

While I whole heartedly agree with Judith's summary, it is rather sad that an accident waiting to happen has had to happen to illuminate the weaknesses of the fire safety regime. I am pretty sure these matters were pointed out and considered but probably hard to convince those with decision making authority that such an outcome is credible. As an independent consultant I come across things that people do not see or do not want to see or perhaps do not place the same importance and this usually comes down to competence, accountability, leadership and culture. The seventh paragraph 'regulatory systems was outcomes and performance-based' is an interesting sentence. Above all else I really hope there is a shift in thinking about how this will never happen again. Its over thirty years since the Kings Cross Fire and this brought its very own regulations. I suspect there is a common theme between these two accidents.

The Golden Thread is the right requirement, however the Construction Model was a good model until 2012, so the panel that reviews needs to have knowledgable practitioners and engineers involved to ensure design is appropriate and led by 'will do' rather than 'money political based' persons, employed for profit. Additionally there is a need to factored in, that building O&M manuals are maintained and are a formal direct DUTY of any ownership change and that either the Facilities or Office manager has skills to ensure ALL is maintained and recorded. This is where information deteriorates through downsizing and resource budget cuts years later, where works and money influence the buildings structure and services, often moving away from initial design.

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