Elf ‘n Safety and The Grenfell Tower fire

The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower breaks one’s heart.

There was a question asked tonight on BBC’s Newsnight which amounted to:

How is it, in 21st Century UK, a rich and prosperous country despite everything, that a fire can engulf a tower block in the way it did last night?

This got me thinking.

People from the council, politicians and others talk of the need to ‘learn lessons’ in a way that makes one wonder if they really believe it.

Apparently, in the British Army they ban the use of such language. Because we all know what this means. Another report. Another expert ignored. Another tragedy, and another lesson unheard, and ignored. A lesson demonstrated through a change in behaviour, great, but some aspirational statement that one will change at some indeterminate time in the future? No thanks.

We know that tragedies like this are multi-causal, so no single cause can explain it. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseen. In this case there are factors that have been raised:

  • cladding that is not fire-retardant, but rather designed to make a building more aesthetically pleasing, with scant regard for how it undermines the underlying fire-safety of the original building;
  • a lack of any alarm to warn the residents of fire;
  • a lack of sprinklers in rooms or hallways (whereas in hotels this is standard practice; why the difference);
  • a failure to implement a report by a Select Committee of Parliament published following a previous tower-block fire;
  • a building with only one staircase for escape;
  • building standards that are evidently not fit for purpose and widely criticised (for some time) as providing a very low bar for compliance;
  • an arms length management organisation that refused to listen to the concerns of residents.

These and no doubt other factors compounded to either make the fire worse than it should have been, or the response to the fire by residents and rescue workers less effective than it could have been.

No doubt there will be questions about how it is that experts have known about the risks of the kind of cladding used, and have published papers on this, but their knowledge has fallen on deaf ears. No one in authority has had the smidgen of intellectual curiosity or moral impulse to track it down using Google. We apparently need another report to rediscover stuff we already knew, which who knows, maybe they will read this time.

No doubt there are questions to be asked of organisations like the British Standards Institute (BSI) that produces standards in this case that seem to fail to challenge the industry to reach the highest common factor for health and safety, but instead, to arrive a lowest common denominator of standard. They specify tests that are clearly not real-world tests. One is bound to ask if the BSI is fit for purpose, and whether its processes lead to an excessive chumminess with the industries it works with. It has a business model where it generates and sells standards and associated consultancy. Better not rock too many boats? No doubt the standards are “pragmatic” in the business-speak synonym for barely adequate.

Christoper Miers, in his conclusion of a report entitled “Fire Risks From External Cladding Panels – A Perspective From The UK”, wrote:

“Can anything be done about the worldwide legacy of buildings with combustible cored composite panels?  Unless something radical is done, such as national retro-fitting subsidy schemes, it seems inevitable that there will be further fires involving aluminium-faced polyethylene core panels.  Nightmare scenarios include multiple-fatality building-engulfing fires as in China, or given the proximity of towers in some districts, the ignition of neighbouring buildings’ cladding from an external cladding fire, or disintegrated burning panels igniting the roofs of lower buildings adjacent.

It is difficult to envisage owners voluntarily stripping off entire existing aluminium composite panel facades and replacing them with Fire Code-compliant cladding panels, as the cost would be prohibitive.  Partial replacement with barrier bands of fire resistant panels has been suggested to stop fires spreading, [48] but given the flame heights at the Tamweel, Torch and The Address, such barrier bands would have to be substantially large.  The works necessary to provide these barriers would involve much of the scaffolding and associated costs of full replacement.

It seems inevitable that insurers will differentiate between buildings with and without combustible aluminium composite panels and will charge higher premiums for higher risks.  One or two more fires, or a fatal fire, could lead to insurance cover being refused if the risk is considered excessive.  Insurance issues, bad publicity and loss of property value might then make retro-fitting external cladding a viable option in commercial, as well as fire safety terms.”

But despite all these unlearned lessons, there is something far more insidious at work here.

The sneering right wing commentators like Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Fail have waged a campaign for many years against what they claim is an over-weaning attempt by the liberal elite to protect us from ourselves, which goes under the catchy title of “elf ’n safety” (snigger, snigger, sneer). Imagine …

Poor Johnny can’t even go diving off some rocks without someone doing a bloody risk assessment, then someone else has to hold a flag. 

Stuff and nonsense – in my day we used to ski down black runs blindfolded. Never did us any harm.

You get the picture.

I remember once doing a study for the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) back in the 90s, and some of the horror stories of what used to happen in industries like farming and chemicals would make your hair stand on end.

And of course deaths and injury in these and other industries have fallen dramatically in the last few decades, thanks to organisations like the HSE. Far from hurting productivity, it has helped it, by enhancing efficiency and professionalism. In some industries it even drives innovation, as with the noise regulations for aircraft.

And even in the more parochial area of school trips, there was plenty of evidence that just a little bit of prior planning might well prevent poor performance (and injury).

But no, to Richard Littlejohn and his ilk, the “world has gone mad”.

Too often the bureaucrats seem to have bought into – maybe unconsciously – this background noise of derision towards health and safety. They feel inclined to dismiss the concerns raised by experts or ride roughshod over citizens concerns.

What do they know? Business must go on.

And once again we have the chumminess effect: councillors too close to developers, and lacking the critical faculties to ask searching questions, or even obvious ones.

For example, one might have imagined a councillor asking the questions …

“This cladding we plan use… is it anything like that used on that tower block that went up in flames in Dubai? Have we assessed the risks? Can we assure the tenants we have investigated this, and its OK?”.  

There is good box-ticking (in the cock-pit of an aeroplane) and the bad kind. The good kind is used by engineers, pilots, surgeons, school-teachers and others who are skilled in their respective arts.

The bad kind is used by bureaucrats wanting to cover their arses. We heard some of this  last night on Newsnight “we got the design signed off”, “we followed the standards”, etc.

Where is the imagination, the critical thinking, the challenging of lazy assumptions?

And most importantly, where is the answering of tenants’ questions and concerns, and taking health and safety seriously as the number one requirement, not as an afterthought?

But risk assessment planning and execution is incessantly mocked by the sneering, curled lip brigade who inhabit the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and other right wing denigrators of “elf ’n safety”.

This has created a culture of jocular disregard for safety.

Try this. Go to a cafe with a few friends and ask “shall we have a chat about health and safety?”. I bet you that they will – whatever their political views – either laugh or roll their eyes.

Well, maybe not any more. Maybe they may feel suitably chasticised for a while at least, and stop their lazy sneering.

The champion sneerers have been successful through their drip, drip of cherry-picked stories or outright myths; their project has had an insidious effect, and has done its worst inundermining respect for health and safety.

But you see, it is not really health and safety that they have in their sights.  It’s just the easy to mock first hurdle in a wider programme.

There is a bigger prize: regulation!

What the de-regulators like Daniel Hannan want from Brexit is a bonfire of regulations, as he wrote about in his 2015 ‘vision’.

David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, claims not to know the difference between a ‘soft’ Brexit and a hard one.

Well, here’s a guide, David.

A hard Brexit is one where we have a bonfire of regulations; where we have no truck with experts who advise us on risks of ethylene-based cladding or excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; where ‘risk assessment’ is a joke we have down the club; where the little people enjoy the fruits of ‘trickle down’ economics in a  thriving Britain, free of (allegedly) over-weaning regulation.

But the British have made it clear they do not want a hard Brexit.

I hope and trust that the time is over for the sneering, arrogant advocates for de-regulation, and their purile and dangerous disregard for people’s health, and their safety.

Whether in bringing forth and implementing effective measures to prevent another terrible fire like at Grenfell Tower, or in all the other areas of life and work in the UK that are important for a safe and secure future, the time to take experts and regulations seriously is needed now, more than ever.

 

Richard W. Erskine, 15th June 2017.

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