Amplifying the voices

Few need reminding that on 14/15 June last year, just a few days after the general election, a fire developed and spread rapidly in a multi-occupied block in west London that killed 71, injured more than 70 and traumatised a whole community.

Soon after, the British Safety Council was one of the signatories to a letter to the prime minister, linking what happened to years of political argument that health and safety standards, regulations and practice were an unnecessary burden on business – just so much ‘red tape’.

The corrosive effect of this tidal flow of negativity, we and many others stated, was to undermine trust and commitment to achieving high standards, which translates to reduced illness and injury.

That is why we called for an abandonment – or at least a reframing – of the Red Tape Initiative. No one is against better regulations, but the benefits of good regulation should get more of a hearing. Since then, there has been a lot of activity, and perhaps this is an opportune time to review where we are.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the voice of tenants of Grenfell Tower were heard for the first time – and it soon became clear that they had, individually and collectively, been arguing that the fire protection arrangements for their homes were inadequate. At one point, prophetically, they told the Kensington and Chelsea Council that they feared that only a disaster would prod their landlord into action.

One of the roles of the British Safety Council, reflecting the campaigning zeal of our founder James Tye, is to consider, analyse and where appropriate to amplify the voices of those who consider that their safety, their human right to life, is at risk. That is why we are now actively working with a number of social landlords to explore establishing better systems for encouraging dialogue with tenants and being responsive to any concerns expressed.

Government policy around so-called 'red tape' did not change in light of a similar experience that had claimed six lives, before the Grenfell Tower fire

There is a formal, statutory inquiry established by the prime minister under the chairmanship of Sir Moore-Bick, but as well as some residents’ expressing concern about matters such as representation and participation (for example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission was denied the opportunity to participate by the Chair, and has in consequence set up its own inquiry into whether the residents’ human rights were breached), we are reviewing the terms of reference and mode of operation.

The British Safety Council agrees that the first phase of any forensic investigation of such a tragedy should be to establish the basic facts, the technical issues, the chronology, the immediate causes – but it is essential that the root causes are subsequently explored in Phase 2.

If the Building Regulations were inadequate, confusing, bureaucratic and difficult to implement and enforce as Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report indicates – then the responsibility lies at a very senior level.

The Lakanal House fire in 2009 led to an inquest report in which the coroner raised exactly these matters regarding cladding – and the then housing minister and now chairman of the Conservative Party argued in Parliament that he couldn’t and shouldn’t introduce any regulatory changes unless he could, at the same time, revoke three other sets of regulations.

In other words, the government’s policy on health and safety was dominated by the self-imposed “red tape rules”, and so nothing changed in the light of a similar experience that had claimed six lives, before the Grenfell Tower fire.

We know that good regulations are risk-based, not ideologically determined. The British Safety Council will join with others to argue for a proper inquiry into the deeper background to this terrible loss of life, and fight to prevent it being shunted into a small technical-legal cul-de-sac that misses the key issues of responsibility and accountability.

Building a safer future, the Hackitt Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, is likely to provoke some significant changes across the construction industry – materials supply as well as their application by constructors. Our Construction Sector Interest Group will participate in the consultation – and this is one of the great strengths of the British Safety Council: that our extensive membership in so many sectors enables us to provide reality checks on any initiatives that are proposed and then helps us prepare the information support, tools and training for effective implementation.

The application of the fire regulations and the role of the fire services in prevention rather than, as now, largely limited to response and fire-fighting should also be reviewed, and if this is undertaken we shall as usual offer our technical support.

We, of course, prefer the approach that our occupational hygienists promote of anticipation, recognition, evaluation and proportionate control of risks.

When near misses and previous incidents point to problems, our vision of no one being injured or made ill by their work or the work of others prompts us and our member organisations to both advocate and take appropriate action. When such warning signs are ignored, we become relentless campaigners to change minds, raising awareness and pointing out the practical steps that can be taken to protect people. When disasters strike, our attention becomes laser-like because preventing a recurrence is the very least that should be done out of respect to the victims.

While others are trying to protect their reputations, trying to shift blame, we shall focus on the lessons for the future. From the Grenfell Tower fire, as a minimum, we shall be putting our efforts in partnership with others to improve the regulations over what gets built and maintained and how that is assured. The British Safety Council, because of its reputation, history and membership, has a voice that is listened to, and we shall use it appropriately.

Building a Safer Future report available here