In the line of fire

The fire at Grenfell tower shocked and horrified the nation. At least 80 people lost their lives, and hundreds more lost their homes, loved ones and everything they owned.

It seems incomprehensible that a tragedy of this scale can occur in 21st century Britain, and there are many questions for the various inquiries to answer in terms of causation and the immediate follow up.

This tragic incident is still very much in the headlines at the moment, with lots of political and media activity. But as time goes on, the focus will shift to other issues, and for those of us not directly affected by the disaster, our thoughts will move on. However, we can’t allow this situation to slip unnoticed from the collective memory. Nothing can bring back those lost to the fire, but we can ensure that action is taken to prevent any recurrence of this dreadful incident, and that long-term support is made available to those affected by it.

It’s sad to think that a major incident is required to fundamentally challenge the status quo, but this has been the case throughout history. It’s a sad truth that disasters do drive improvements.

The book Red for Danger, by L. T. C. Rolt, published for the first time in 1955 illustrates this concept in the context of railway safety. The Kings Cross fire in 1987 prompted a fundamental review of fire safety on the underground, and the Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Potters Bar train crashes drove a complete review of railway maintenance arrangements.

Similarly, Bradford City fire in 1985 prompted a review of fire safety in the entertainment sector, and the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, a revised approach to public safety in sport venues. Nothing can mitigate the impact of these incidents, but hopefully some will draw a little comfort from the fact that knowledge and understanding have improved, and that learning has been applied to drive safety improvements.

For some while now health and safety has been viewed as an unnecessary burden, getting in the way of business and stopping people from living their lives. This has attracted tabloid headlines and widespread ridicule, and made health and safety a focus for the government’s deregulation agenda. However, the confusion seen in the wake of the Grenfell fire underlines that there is still a need for clear, concise and proportionate regulation, which provides clarity of requirements and responsibilities, allows risk to be managed effectively and enables people to live their lives without worrying about safety.

On 21 June the British Safety Council, joined together with IOSH, RoSPA, other health and safety organisations and professionals, to send an open letter to the prime minister calling for an end to deregulation in the context of health, safety and environmental protection.

As a result of this, a debate was held in the House of Lords on 13 July. It’s great that this important issue is getting a public hearing, and we very much hope that this will be the start of a whole new dialogue about health and safety, not as an imposition, but as an important safeguard in every aspect of our lives.

It is particularly timely to be starting these conversations as the Brexit negotiations begin. Some have called for a significant cut in health and safety regulation as we leave the EU, but we urge caution. The UK regulatory system for health and safety is truly world-class. It has enabled significant reductions in injuries and ill health over time last 40 years, and is still very much fit for purpose.

There is of course still more to be done, but we have a great framework to enable this, and it has never been more important. People are at the heart of the British economy, and as we withdraw from the EU, it will be an increasing priority for businesses to take care of their people, their biggest asset.

The British Safety Council is committed to supporting the government in securing a clear, concise and proportionate regulatory framework for health, safety and environmental protection, which enables all aspects of life and work.

And of course, our thoughts are with all of those affected by the Grenfell fire.

Mike Robinson FCA is chief executive of the British Safety Council