Fire safety as an “optional extra”? (the case of modern day office space)

With the Grenfell Tower disaster still fresh in our minds, and daily reports of the steadily increasing number of tall buildings clad in material that fails to meet fire safety standards, it’s understandable that the more general issue of fire safety and regulation has rightly become something of a talking point.

For example, recent articles in The Guardian by Jolyon Maugham and George Monbiot both highlight the fact that the terms of reference for the Grenfell inquiry are more than likely going to be set narrowly. This seems to fly directly in the face of comments Prime Minister May made soon after the tragedy – but then many of us are now aware of our PM’s tendency to say one thing while doing another. The fundamental point is, however, that a narrow approach to an inquiry conveniently avoids taking evidence about the degree to which the policies of successive governments to reduce regulations that are considered a “cost” to business and commercial activity have played in producing increasingly unsafe living and working environments.

As May noted in a recent PMQ, New Labour were responsible for starting the process of cutting regulation, including fire regulations. However, this crude attempt at blame shifting, while accurate, ignores the fact that whatever New Labour did while in government pales into insignificance when compared to the bonfire of regulations – across every policy domain from environment through housing to health and safety – the Tories have overseen since coming to power in 2010. Under various variants of ‘red tape’ challenges or initiatives – which, as Monbiot notes, continue to be pursued relentlessly to this day – and driven on by their ideological abhorrence for anything they regard as stifling free enterprise (i.e. making maximum profit), the Tories have dismantled systems of safeguards and protections that were put in place over decades. That many of these came about precisely as a result of injury, death and human (and animal) suffering, and the recommendations of inquiries, inquests or public pressure is entirely disregarded.

This disdain for the safety and wellbeing of others is entirely understandable, of course, when we realise that those making the decisions about what ‘red tape’ to cut, and those advising them, are about as likely to have done any job, or lived anywhere, where the threat of injury or death was evident – and thus regulation and safeguards necessary – as they are to have walked on the moon. But speaking as someone who spent several years working down a coal mine as well as in other industries where it was commonplace to witness injury (and in one case death) because of the nature of the work I can vouch first hand for why many health and safety regulations – a particularly hated form of ‘red tape’ to a Tory – came into existence (e.g. you only have to witness someone getting their hand caught in a machine once to realise why guards are fitted to certain machinery and why removing or ignoring them, while making the operation faster [more profit], is a seriously bad idea).

Which brings me back to fire regulations. As I noted above, one outcome of the Grenfell disaster is that people have become more aware of the risk of fire. So far this has largely and understandably been focused on high rise housing and other public buildings. But how about elsewhere?

Yesterday I was told by a friend about the office she works in along with eight others. It’s at the end of a corridor with the fire escape at the opposite end (near a lift and stairs). Thus, if a fire were to start in the corridor, or in the few small offices along it and spread into the corridor, the people who work in her office have no means of escape. Moreover, the windows in the office are restricted to open only five or six inches, and even if they could be opened wider there’s a drop of 30 feet or more to the ground. And now they’ve become aware of their potential peril they’ve also noticed that there are no fire extinguishers in their office or the corridor, and no fire alarm points either. All this seemed a bit strange (and worrying) to them until they were told by someone with knowledge of the building in which they work that their office had originally been a store room but was re-designated office space due to changes in building regulations, and then presumably passed as ok for fire safety under what now appears to be an extremely lax, self-certification, regime.

Developments such as this are unlikely to be limited to one organisation or one part of the country, of course. Indeed, the whole purpose of the Tory “war” on red tape is to spread the message far and wide about the “opportunities” this creates for employers and enterprises. So, the moral of this story is that most of us are understandably unaware of the extent to which the assault on red tape has stripped away safeguards that we still assume exist and therefore take for granted.

In reality times have changed. Consequently, when you’re next at work it may well be wise too check to see to what extent the regulations and safeguards that you assumed kept you safe no longer apply, and then, as my friend and her colleagues are now doing, let those in authority – including your local MP, and particularly if they’re a Tory – know that you want them back.


  1. Sean Danaher -

    very worrying, thanks for this. Of course the Torys see Brexit as a further opportunity to reduce red tape on safety, environment and workers rights. One searing memory is the Stardust fire in Dublin where 48 died and 214 were injured as a result of the fire. This was in 1981 shortly before I left Dublin to go to England. Lax safety regulations and the storage of 45×5 gallon drums of cooking oil were part of the issue. “Red tape” is here to keep us safe. We are becoming a 3rd world country; like Bangladesh in 10 years time.

    1. Peter May -

      I’m sure they do but do they have the right skills? It certainly appears that even pseudo public authorities who run housing don’t – even though most imagined they did.

    2. Tony_B -

      There is an obvious problem for employees conducting such evaluations if the employer does not accept the competent person’s assessment. Having been in such a position where my job may have ended if I gave “the wrong answer” on an important technical matter affecting the whole business, not safety related, I know the sudden decision I had to make was difficult and posed a conflict of interest.

      In the case of the Grenfell disaster the chain “of ordering, specifying, checking, authorisation, changes to bills of materials and specs and decision making” over numerous contractors seems to be so complex. Who in that chain knew who was responsible, either partially or overall, or would even take responsibility. Didn’t the Fire Service used to be that independent authority. It seems reasonable that no one has clearly been identified here and that is the problem with sloppy deregulation.

      1. Ivan Horrocks -

        Thanks for the comment, Tony_B. This is appears to be pretty much exactly the situation the ‘competent person’ in question is in (those concerned having now spoken to them). Ultimately they’ve offered soothing words and run through the procedures in place but have nothing to say about the fundamental problem.

      2. Peter May -

        They should certainly request fire extinguishers appropriate for whatever equipment is in their office. They’re pretty cheap and putting another couple on an annual inspection probably will make no difference to what they’re already paying – presuming they have them elsewhere in the building!

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