Director

Author Bio ▼

Claire is Director of Clarity Safety Solutions Ltd., an Oban-based health and safety consultancy. She has more than 17 years of health and safety experience advising organisations and is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, an OSHCR registered consultant, and an IFE registered life safety assessor. Since attempting to leave the rat race in 2008, and moving to the West Coast of Scotland, Claire has written hundreds of articles, reports, policies, papers, newsletters, and training courses. Nevertheless, she continues to help clients directly with their health, safety, and fire safety arrangements both within the UK and abroad.
August 12, 2013

Sign up to free email newsletters

Download

The Video Surveillance Report 2021

Are Fire Safety Laws Fit for Purpose?

Is a re-think of fire safety regulations required, because some business owners appear to continually flout the rules

Looking at the continuing stream of prosecutions, you get the distinct impression that a large proportion of the business sector just doesn’t get fire safety. Regularly, those people we see in the courts are small operators in high-risk sectors: hotel owners, operators of guest houses, and landlords. Then of course there’s the retail sector also routinely in the dock — an industry in which individual managers take a large share of responsibility for standards at their own stores.

What these have in common is that the level of risk from fire is high — either due to the presence of sleeping accommodation and/or the presence of the public. As any fire risk assessor will tell you, the prosecutions are the tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty of evidence that a high proportion of businesses operate with very poor fire safety standards.

What’s the issue?

There seem to be a number of factors at play:

  • low likelihood of a fire;
  • low likelihood of a prosecution; and
  • low likelihood of an inspection.

It’s always hard to persuade people to spend money, time, and effort to solve a problem they don’t think they have. Since the resources of fire and rescue services have been diverted to domestic accommodations for higher risk residents, it seems there’s less chance than ever of getting caught out for low standards.

Add to all that the difficulty duty holders have in understanding exactly what’s needed to fulfil their legal obligations, plus the costs, plus the time or effort to carry out routine testing to ensure that routes are always unobstructed, etc.

If you take the carrot and stick analogy then there’s not much of either.

Fire certificates

When I started out in safety we had fire certificates. It was a totally different approach whereby certain types of premises with particular levels of occupancy had to apply for one. You were told exactly what had to be done, right down to the content of annual staff training. If you wanted to do things differently, you were supposed to notify the authority. Contravening a fire certificate could make you end up in prison.

Did it work? Well not exactly. People made changes and forgot to tell the fire brigade. And the authorities didn’t have the time to do much revisiting and checking of the premises. Then, of course, as not all premises had to have a certificate. The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 came in (since repealed), and as a result risk assessments were supposed to be carried out, but mostly were not.

But the part which was good about the old system was the clarity about what had to be done, something which is now sorely lacking.

A myriad of small businesses have now grasped the risk -assessment message, i.e., that they can decide for themselves. They’ve decided to do nothing. Or maybe they’ve bought a fire extinguisher but not much else.

The fire and rescue services were already fighting an uphill struggle to get these businesses sorted out, when along came a recession. Go in heavy and the smaller hotel, guest house, etc. will fold with the consequential job losses and political backlash.

And to underline the point the government is now tying regulators in to a commitment to be business friendly.

Safety and health advice days

It’s a capital market place, so ideally natural pressures would lead to higher standards. For example, if there’s a good supply of high-quality safe accommodation at affordable prices, the cowboy landlords would lose out in the Houses in Multiple Occupation market. Not really a likely scenario for the next couple of decades, though, I’d suggest.

Could we nudge people in the right direction instead, with stories of fire victims or increasing the knowledge of managers in the higher risk sectors with free seminars?

One trick the HSE uses to good effect is SHAD events (Safety and Health Advice Days). The deal is that if you turn up for free training, you’re unlikely to be inspected. Could there be scope for something similar in the fire sector?

What else could we try?

  • Increase the penalties: even with a low possibility of prosecution, if the penalties were severe fewer would be tempted.
  • Increase personal liability: people generally hate personal liability, they prefer to hide behind a company. If it was more likely you’d get a personal fine, community-service order or jail sentence, then as a manager maybe you’d make better fire safety decisions.
  • Increase the number of prosecutions: When word spreads locally that so-and-so got shut down for fire safety offences, others start to take note.
  • Increase the numbers of inspections: I’m guessing this is out of the question in the current climate?
  • Change the law to make the requirements more rigid.
  • Remove regionalisation and provide one central fire information source for the UK.

Perhaps the answer is a touch of all of the above. But one thing which is within our grasp is to simply make it much easier for people to know what to do. We need to return to a clear message: a means of escape, fire fighting measures, a means of raising the alarm, and maintenance.

Free download: A Technical Guide to Sprinkler Systems

Do you know the legal requirements for sprinkler systems? Do you know when and where should they be used? Download this technical guide from Barbour, coveirng the types, design, maintenance and – most importantly – the  legislation surrounding sprinkler systems.

Related Topics

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
35 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 12, 2013 11:35 am

Firstly, the idea of a fire version of the Safety and Health Advice Days is fantastic. I’d definitely back that, as it would improve the awareness of fire safety (and danger) massively, in a relatively cheap and efficient way. One seminar afternoon with 50+ business owners versus 50+ inspections.
Secondly, the idea of removing regionalisation is also great in principle, but judging by the Government’s failed attempts to establish the regional fire control hubs I don’t hold much hope for this.

manshi
manshi
August 13, 2013 6:34 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

: I think the government is doing their best to control or have an upper hand on this. They have failed so far but I think things will look ok for sure in the future.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 30, 2013 6:30 am
Reply to  manshi

You’re far more optimistic than I am then Manshi!

holmesd
holmesd
August 13, 2013 7:35 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

I carried out fire training to become the “competent person” for my company. It went through everything that needed to be done etc. I returned home after the course and spoke to a friend of mine who owns a hairdresser shop and asked them if they knew what they needed to do from a fire perspective and they were clueless (and not just because they were dippy hairdressers!). Some small businesses genuinely are unaware of the steps they need to be taking. I believe insurers are best positioned to provide basic advice packs and to put fire related requirements to small… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 13, 2013 9:53 am
Reply to  holmesd

Yes, it’s surprising how few people know about their responsibilities, even now. Your story, I think, is fairly typical. Putting a degree of burden on the insurers to ensure they require a declaration that a fire risk assessment has been carried out is a good idea. I don’t think you can ask them to assess whether the risk assessment is suitable and sufficient, but simply asking whether it exists or not will make most people ask ‘What is it, how do I get one?’ Those who don’t want to gt a risk assessment are still welcome to do so, but… Read more »

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 14, 2013 8:13 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

I’m not knocking our facilities team but I will say that they have so much on their plate that it does not surprise me when they take the path of being compliant with local laws being their only concern.  I’ve seen much worse so I give them credit for putting the effort in to make sure we are complying by local laws but at the same time I would like to see them go a couple steps farther and educate people on the dangers around them.  If something is so obviously dangerous that they can’t just stand by and watch… Read more »

ITs_Hazel
ITs_Hazel
August 15, 2013 12:20 pm
Reply to  safeNsane

You’re right on that point. They do have so many things to sort out and so many laws and regulations to comply with, that often, they just go with the basics and just go from there. I think it would really change, though to get self-starters who will try to do more than what’s required.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 23, 2013 10:50 am
Reply to  ITs_Hazel

So you want overhauls of facility teams to tackle minmal compliance?

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 19, 2013 7:05 am
Reply to  safeNsane

Mm, yes, you have to come down hard on the little things. Boxes left in silly places (trip and fire hazard), fire doors blocked by a couple of small items (which will fast become lots) etc.
Our facilities teams get loads of stick from us when they have a go at us for even the smallest infraction, but deep down we know why they’re like that, even if we do find some of the ‘risks’ a little ridiculous.

EFRA
EFRA
August 15, 2013 5:12 pm
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

It appears that there is no debate on the fact that under current legislation fire risk assessments and RRO enforcement are subjective. The perception of the wording that a fire risk assessment should be suitable and sufficient in practice can lead to widely different conclusions.   In this situation only a court after a fire accident can decide whether the actions of the ‘responsible person’ were “reasonably practicable” and “necessary” to prevent the accident.   As a result the current legislation is encouraging the fire safety only after a fire accident. There is no real emphasis on prevention.   The way the system usually… Read more »

Gel
Gel
August 17, 2013 12:37 pm
Reply to  EFRA

In same vein why is ADB (BUILDING REGS, ENGLAND & WALES)  still at variance with BS5839Pt6, as in this article??
http://refurbprojects-online.com/2013/07/fire-safety-2/
 
Scotland, N Ireland & Eire are in compliance, not the most densely populated part of Gt Britain??
Wales may rectify when it introduces devolved legislation, as it has with New Build Sprinklers requirement.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 19, 2013 8:55 am
Reply to  Gel

Code of practice suggests best practice, whereas ADB is minimum requirement. Can the minimum always mirror the best practice? (whether it should perhaps is another matter)

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 19, 2013 8:47 am
Reply to  EFRA

You make a very good point, the wording of the legislation is spectacularly subjective. And then, should a case come to court, it might be possible to call two different fire safety experts who say opposite things as to whether or not the risk assessment was sufficient.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 19, 2013 8:51 am
Reply to  EFRA

Additional point: The Lakanal House deaths were as a result of there being no fire risk assessment, faulty fire proofing, poor understanding of the stay put policy from fire service operators, and other smaller mistakes that all led to 6 deaths. The 6 deaths of those poor children in Derby were a result of one man who set a fire. So Lakanal, there were avoidable mistakes from the building owners and fire service. I don’t think they can be held up next to each other. Though all lives lost to fire are equally tragic.

EFRA
EFRA
August 19, 2013 6:54 pm
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

Rob, thank you for summing up the current situation with the fire risk assessments: ‘And then, should a case come to court, it might be possible to call two different fire safety experts who say opposite things as to whether or not the risk assessment was sufficient’. I would like to ask your permission for citing you.   With regard to the tragic accident in Derby, sadly, this cannot be treated as an isolated and exceptional accident attributed to one particular man. In fact this horrendous crime is specific to the UK. The thoroughly investigated and publicised single Lakanal Fire accident stands in… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 23, 2013 10:55 am
Reply to  EFRA

You can cite me of course, but I’m merely a journalist and community manager, not an RRO expert in my own right, as long as you’re aware!

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 13, 2013 7:52 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

I don’t think inspections are all bad but I do think that they lead to an atmosphere of doing just enough to get your building passed.  I’ve had to do walk through with inspectors and it’s so boring I thought I might fall asleep on my feet.  Unless there was a concern or code violation they just walk out and your certification letter comes in the mail.  The only real incentive there is to do just enough to pass the walk, there is not incentive to adjust any practices he might not see or to teach anyone about safety practices. 

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 13, 2013 9:55 am
Reply to  safeNsane

In an ideal world the incentive would be knowing that your staff are safe. Of course, in reality, doing enough is the commong theme.

David McC
David McC
August 15, 2013 8:20 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

I think the reality is that very few people knowingly run businesses that are unsafe. In many cases, the need to make money, produce goods, hit targets, sell goods or increase turnover all contribute to the collective ignorance when it comes to fire safety generally. Fire services have finite resources when it comes to enforcement staff so the opportunity to engage with relevant premises becomes an even bigger task. This has resulted in resources being targeted at the higher risk premises and quite rightly so. However, this also means that a significant number of premises may never be visited by… Read more »

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 16, 2013 7:29 am
Reply to  David McC

“I’ll bet your staff know what colour a water fire extinguisher is but if the fire alarm goes off then they probably will not react in the fashion that a trained person should do.”   I’ve been seeing this for years.  My favorite part of this is hearing people say “oh they would make an announcement if it was a real fire” as the strobes are flashing and klaxons are going off.  I was under the impression all the lights and sounds were the announcement but I guess what people really need is a formal invitation to meet everyone else… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 19, 2013 8:58 am
Reply to  safeNsane

Clearly it needs to be communicated to ‘boy who cried wolf’ type people whether such an announcement would happen. I’m assuming in most places it wouldn’t. As you say, the sounders and strobes should be enough…

safeNsane
safeNsane
August 20, 2013 7:18 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

For those boy who cried wolf types it makes me wonder how many times they’ve been through false alarms.  It’s not like they are a daily, weekly or even quarterly occurrence.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 23, 2013 10:56 am
Reply to  safeNsane

For some it may be, in which case a business should be investigating the recurring cause and doing something about it. False fire alarms can become as dangerous as fire if they happen frequently.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 16, 2013 10:54 am
Reply to  David McC

“In many cases, the need to make money, produce goods, hit targets, sell goods or increase turnover all contribute to the collective ignorance when it comes to fire safety generally.”
That’s a good point, though is it more that all of these pressures are distractions, rather than a contributor to ignorance?

David McC
David McC
August 23, 2013 4:54 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

That’s a good point, though is it more that all of these pressures are distractions, rather than a contributor to ignorance?
Just a play on words really. Whether its being ignorant, distracted, lazy or mis-informed….my point was more that, regardless of the situation, fire safety is not priority for a number of reasons

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 23, 2013 11:01 am
Reply to  David McC

Fair enough!

dpeaco
dpeaco
August 28, 2013 10:48 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

I live in a town with many guest houses and hotels. I am no expert, but I have been an electrical contractor and have seen many fire alarm systems, some are good ones, but there are many very old and unreliable systems in place. In my opinion, no fire is ever the result of the lack of a risk assessment. Whether or not a risk assessment exists, the correct implementation of measures to prevent fire or avoid its effects is too subjective. I believe the risk assessment is an extra layer of regulation which adds complication to a relatively simple… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 30, 2013 6:23 am
Reply to  dpeaco

Well this is it isn’t it. This vague generalist approach doesn’t work. People need to know what equipment they need in what circumstance, and they need to be told to install it or face consequences. But as others have touched on (can’t recall which comment thread in) before, the Govt doesn’t want to be seen to be stifling local businesses at a time of recession with over-burdened fire safety regulations. Even if we know that they’re not an overburden, they are just reasonable steps, some press will always have that spin on the story.

Sheh
Sheh
September 9, 2013 12:41 pm
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

Infact the fire assessment of every building is a complex issue and has to be taken very seriously while the fire safety appliances are being installed at the time of construction. A proper regulartory authority which is capable of monitoring and make the owners accountable is very essential. I really have reservations when we connect the safety issues with economic ones. They have to be treated sepeately. If we dart on recessions and economic downturn we might not be able to get of the quagmire of bickering. Perhaps, a more solemn assessment is required under stringent supervision of govt functionaries… Read more »

Bill Scott
Bill Scott
September 2, 2013 2:26 pm
Reply to  dpeaco

I am not so sure that most premises do want to comply with safety standards as many still do not understand that it is there responsibility, nor do they have any idea what they are suuposed have in place. I also accept that no premise has burnt down because of a lack of an assessment; we all know the causes as well as the baasic failings of provisionof information,instruction and training .. A risk assessment properly carried out on a company asking for help is fine, but there are still some assessers who do not make positive decisions about what… Read more »

Wayne Marshall
Wayne Marshall
December 3, 2013 8:30 am
Reply to  David McC

Simple – make the insurance companies insist on proof of / sight of existing/current FRA before providing cover…a la motor insurance..

Tracy - Hertfordshire
Tracy - Hertfordshire
August 15, 2013 8:14 am

As a company which offeres fire alarm, emergency lighting, and fire extinguishers, servicing/maintenance/installation, it has long been an issue that many responsible people are not the person who actually holds the purse strings therefore whilst the ressponsible person is well aware what needs to be done, ultimately does not have the authority to fulfill. Secondly there should be a body of people a company such as ours can report to when we are ignored by customers who are putting their staff, premesis and others at risk.

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 16, 2013 7:13 am

Interesting, so there are instances when you specify various firestopping or maintenance work and are told, wrongly, that it’s not needed? Are you not able to report this to the relevant FRS?

Tracy - Hertfordshire
Tracy - Hertfordshire
August 16, 2013 7:42 am
Reply to  Rob Ratcliff

No… just ignored by customer, have mentioned that fire companies should have a body to report this to (Continual ignoring of reccommendations) have mentioned at various times at events/shows/trade fairs to relevant fire authorities, they not interested…  

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
August 19, 2013 8:43 am

Possibly something the FIA or another trade association should look to take up…

Topics: