Opinion

Why politicians should work to an ethical code post-Grenfell Tower

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH
Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

The Grenfell Tower fire in June killed more people than any fire on the UK mainland since the blitz in the second world war.

The scale is significant: we know that disasters at Hillsborough and Bradford City football stadiums led to profound changes in the management of sports grounds, the explosion and fire on the Piper Alpha rig changed the North Sea oil regime, and rail accidents such as the crash at Ladbroke Grove in 1999 forced greater control of railway maintenance.

The corrosive effect of many years of government characterising safety and health regulation as red tape has created a political context in which getting away with minimal compliance is the way developers and others have been encouraged to behave. This has been accompanied by squeezed local authority and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) resources to inspect workplaces and enforce regulations, and all have contributed to an increase in risk exposure, whatever the level of reported accidents.

We need a second phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry to explore the wider issues

That is why I was proud to work with colleagues from IOSH, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, British Safety Council, Unite the Union, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the Civil Engineering Contractors Association and others – organisations and individuals – to link deregulation to public safety in our open letter (see p 14). In the UK we have a well-developed system for consulting on the introduction, amendment or revocation of laws. But regulators now have to cope with an ideologically framed arbitrary rule which can be summarised as three laws scrapped for every new one adopted. This was the reason cited for not updating the Building Regulations 2010 after the Lakanal House fire, which killed six people four years ago.

The tone of our letter to Theresa May was measured, but there is an underlying anger at so many people killed, so many lives damaged irreparably and preventably. That is why there have been clear calls for the public inquiry to examine the root causes. Setting its terms of reference to focus on the technocratic issues is a helpful first step in the process to establish what caused the fire, its rapid spread, firefighters’ inability to contain it and the issues surrounding residents’ personal safety, including advice to stay in their flats, relying on compartmentation instead of evacuation supported by effective alarms, smoke venting and sprinklers.

But the inquiry must go further. The Grenfell Tower fire was foreseeable. Residents had stated months before that their fears were being ignored and only a major disaster would force fire protection to be taken seriously by the richest local authority in the country. We need a second phase of the inquiry to explore the wider issues. When we saw the authorities’ incompetence, coupled with something close to indifference, to the plight of largely African American residents after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast of the US in 2005, our reaction was that it “couldn’t happen here”. Now it has, and people are seeking to define the inquiry so wider culpability is not examined.

Leadership is about the right behaviour: not just saying things but doing them ethically. As safety and health practitioners we work to an ethical code; political leaders must demonstrate the same values. As our joint letter argued, the first step is to end the Red Tape Initiative. Only then can the fall in new schools fitted with sprinklers, the urgent update to the Building Regulations 2010, and the cut in HSE resources and fire services be addressed.

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH

Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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