Assure 360

The shadow of Grenfell and Aberfan – what building regulation can learn from workplace H&S

Written by Nick Garland on 23/10/2017
 

With the shock of the Grenfell Tower fire still raw in our minds, Nick Garland look to echoes of the past for lessons to relearn.

“Grenfell Tower met all required building regulations – as well as fire regulations.” This is the statement from the contractor responsible for installing the cladding. The thing is, it might very well be true – but does that make it right?

Do what I say

In 1974, the year that the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA) became law, the number of fatal injuries in British industry was 651, over six times higher than today. Pre-1974, the H&S framework had not been slack – in fact it had been highly proscriptive. The regulators set a list of targets, which industry would strive to achieve.

Simple.

The inevitable problem with this kind of approach to safety regulation comes where regulation is not drafted perfectly, so compliance to the letter of the law falls well short of what is needed. Problems that the regulator did not foresee will be missing from the guidance and therefore never complied with.

The Aberfan disaster in 1966 was a clear and horrific example of this. A previously unknown underground spring found the surface under the dramatically increasing slag heaps. The spring turned the foundations of the heap to an unstable slurry, and the whole lot slid down the hillsides killing 144 people, 116 of whom were children. The Coal Board had complied with the 1966 regulations because there had been no mention of what was required if underground springs appeared under your workplace.

Now take a look at the building regulations of today.

“External walls are elements of structure and the relevant period of fire resistance (specified in Appendix A) depends on the use, height and size of the building concerned. If the wall is 1000mm or more from the relevant boundary, a reduced standard of fire resistance is accepted in most cases and the wall only needs fire resistance from the inside.”

and

“… it is possible for some or all of the walls to have no fire resistance, except for any parts which are loadbearing.”

The Building Regulations 2010

It may be the case that the infamous cladding at Grenfell Tower was not approved as a fire proof panel. But it seems that the regulations are drafted in such a way as to suggest it doesn’t need to be. I am sure that it is more complicated than that and the height of the tower has a big influence – but the fact that cladding on dozens of tower blocks is now failing fire safety tests suggests that the regulations are at the very least easy to misinterpret.

Time to re-learn the lessons of Aberfan

Lord Robens, the much-criticised chairman of the Coal Board at the time of the Aberfan disaster, used this experience to revolutionise how we think about H&S. His report in 1972 directly led to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the creation of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.

This didn’t stop him from continuing to be unpopular. His most controversial idea was that those that own the hazards are best placed to assess them. This therefore is the core of the Health & Safety at Work Act (HASAWA): the simple goal to ‘create a safe place of work’. I believe this idea is ingenious because this twist harnesses the imagination and expertise of the hazard creator (the employer), allowing the regulator to stay ahead of the game.

Is ‘this’ good enough?

Now comes the next touch of genius. ‘So far as reasonably practicable’ (SFARP). But what is ‘reasonable’? There is guidance to help the decision, but to a large extent it is down to the employer. But woe betide them if they fall short of SFARP, because the regulator checks, carry warrant cards and severely punish those not doing enough.

Health & Safety gone mad

I loathe this phrase, it is lazy and misinformed. Billy Brag posted on Facebook recently – remember Grenfell Tower the next time you hear someone complaining about health and safety. Well done Billy.

‘So far as reasonably practicable’ is by contrast inspired. This clever phrase completes the circle:

1.  Create a safe place of work;

2.  Do all you can to achieve this and critically …

3.  We will check that you do.

This harnesses the employers’ imagination, and in this age of private litigation – their fear too. ‘Is this far enough? … let’s just do that bit more…’.

The reality is – all the examples of seeming ‘H&S gone mad’ (including the famous conker ban), was the employer choosing to go the extra mile or two (rightly or wrongly). The legislation was written specifically to get this extra mile because ‘not far enough’ is just that.

If legislation can be beautiful – this is.

What has been the effect?

Dial forward to the 2014/2015 stats and the impact of the remarkable legislation can be seen. Fatal injuries in British industry have dropped by 85% and reported non-fatal injuries are down by 77% since the HSAWA became law.

But only at work

This is the rub; the revolutionary legislation is the Health and Safety at WORK Act and has no bearing on domestic situations or appropriateness of design – unless it is to be a place of work. The main supporting regulation for construction that sits under HASAWA is the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. The main duty for designers in this document is:

…so far as reasonably practicable, eliminate foreseeable risks to:

  • workers or anyone else (eg members of the public) who may be affected during construction;
  • those who may maintain or clean the building once it is built; or
  • those who use the building as a workplace.

Again, a gaping hole for us to slip through.

There are two saving graces: firstly common parts (areas of a building used in common – so the fire escape, foyer, lifts etc…) all count as workplaces. Secondly there are very detailed building regulations which everyone must comply with.

But now we are back to the shadow of Aberfan – if the regulators do not spot a problem and allow for it, then it is effectively invisible.

Do what I say (again)

Today’s building regulations are just as, if not more, proscriptive than the legislation predating HASAWA. For those that are calling for the regulations to be reviewed – I could not agree more. The regulations should be entirely re-written, with Lord Robens’ vision at the heart – so that it is the employer, the developer – those that make the money out of our toil that have a duty to ensure that what they do is without risk – so far as reasonably practicable.

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