Editor, IFSEC Global

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James Moore is the Editor of IFSEC Global, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry. James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Global, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
February 26, 2021

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IFSEC Interviews

“There is a lack of political intent for systemic change in building safety” – Gill Kernick on why lessons aren’t being learnt following Grenfell

Gill-Kernick

Gill Kernick, Master Consultant at JMJ Associates

Alongside her role as a Master Consultant at JMJ Associates, Gill Kernick is a prominent voice in campaigning for systemic change to building safety following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017. We got the chance to join our sister title, Safety & Health Practitioner (SHP), on its latest podcast episode, where we chatted with Gill about the pressing need to improve building safety culture and prevent low probability, high consequence events – such as Grenfell – from happening again.

Listen to the full podcast episode in the player below, where Gill also discusses her role in improving safety culture and leadership in high hazard industries, including oil, gas and construction.

“Right now I can see Grenfell from my window. I lived there, and I saw it burn. Seven of my former neighbours on the twenty-first floor died that night.”

As a resident of Grenfell Tower between 2011 and 2014, Gill Kernick has strong ties to the tragedy that befell the building’s residents in June 2017. Combined with her work as a safety culture and leadership consultant in high hazard industries, Gill is a passionate and knowledgeable campaigner for promoting the need to change the nature of how safety is considered within construction and ensure lessons are learnt for the future. Since the disaster, Gill’s profile among stakeholders has risen to prominence – so much so that she was named as one of SHP’s most influential figures in Health and Safety in the UK for 2020.

Listen to the interview in full here…

Gill continues: “Having watched the fire, I became committed to applying the learnings of major accident prevention to Grenfell and the wider housing sector. I had also assumed, falsely, that Grenfell would be a catalyst for change. Over time, I’ve sadly realised this hasn’t happened, hence the need for so many of us to campaign.

“It was predictable, absolutely preventable, and we’re not learning the lessons. We’re not changing how we think about our relationship to risk in the case of buildings.”

Crucially, Gill highlights the lack of systemic change in the building safety sector. While there is a greater emphasis on ‘piecemeal change’ and component safety – such as fire doors and cladding –which are improving specific aspects, Gill is concerned ‘systemic’ changes to prevent low probability, high-consequence events are not being addressed.

As an example, the recent commitment by Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, of an extra £3.5billion towards the removal of ‘dangerous’ cladding on high-rise buildings has been met by disdain from campaigners and leaseholders alike. While extra funding is welcomed, critics have questioned why it is only available to buildings over 18m (or six storeys), and also argued that it deals only with cladding, which is one of several fire safety issues revealed by Grenfell. It is estimated that a figure of around £15billion is closer to the sum required to make buildings safe in England alone.

These concerns reiterate Gill’s point – that there is a lack of commitment to wholesale, cultural and systemic change in the sector. In comparison to the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in 1988 that resulted in significant improvements in safety management and culture in the sector, there is little evidence that the same outcomes will be applied following Grenfell. The housing sector is, of course, vast – a challenge in itself to promote wholesale changes – but is it vital that attitudes change, all the same.

GrenfellTower-21

Gill adds: “While piecemeal change will improve certain safety processes, the culture within building safety needs to change for lessons to be learned. The lack of political intent for systemic change, coupled with a lack of consequences for those involved in constructing unsafe buildings, will mean poor practice will continue. Sadly, the people currently bearing the consequences of all this appear to be the leaseholders, residents and taxpayers.

“The risk of the buildings is not being viewed systemically. It wasn’t just the cladding, but a combination of factors – including fire doors, ventilation systems and escape routes – that caused so many deaths. A siloed focus on cladding is evidence that the scale of the problem is not being fully considered.

“And, we still don’t even know the true scale of the issues. Thousands of leaseholders and residents in what the Government considers ‘low risk’ buildings don’t feel safe and are having to pay for issues that are ultimately not their fault.”

For those on the frontline of the industry, managing risk collectively from early on in the construction process will be vital in enabling change, Gill believes. Management and the wider supply chain must take ownership to ensure fire safety is on the agenda right through the design, build and occupancy process.

As the Government continues to push legislative change in building safety through the parliamentary machine, with the Fire Safety Bill and Building Safety Bill both set to come into force this year, are the crux of the issues really being addressed? Has the housing sector truly learned and understood the lessons from the 2017 tragedy in North Kensington that resulted in 72 deaths and led to nationwide repercussions for leaseholders, residents and families – thousands of whom continue to live in unsafe buildings?

Three and a half years on, many remain unconvinced. Piecemeal change is good, but systemic change to the industry’s approach to building safety and risk is what really matters, believes Gill.

Follow Gill on Twitter, @gillkernick, LinkedIn, or read Gill’s blog, The Grenfell Enquirer to keep up with her latest work.

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