Grenfell Tower: What happened and What Next
The response of government and Health and Safety community after the Grenfell Tower disaster
When news broke of the devastating fire in West London’s Grenfell Tower on 14th June, dozens of questions swirled around. Not least: how could such a disaster happen in 2017?
That question still hangs in the air.
Bits and pieces of answers started to emerge in the hours and days afterwards. The fire was started by a faulty fridge-freezer in a flat on the fourth floor. Its rampaging spread seemed to have been advanced by the exterior cladding panels, fitted during the building’s 2016 refurbishment. The Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) panels were found in government tests to be highly flammable, and according to the manufacturer’s own guidelines should not have been used on buildings taller than 10m. The mounting death toll (estimated at 80) was so high because residents followed fire safety advice to “stay put” in their flats, a recommendation which assumed the building would compartmentalise the blaze. There was no sprinkler system fitted in the 24-storey tower. The fire service had been suffering funding cuts since 2010, and the London fire brigade did not have their own high aerial platform to fight this tall building fire.
A more complete answer will hopefully be found by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry which opened on 5th September.
Health and Safety Response
Another question was instantly asked: how can we ensure this never happens again?
A week after the fire, leading Health and Safety organisations and professionals responded in an open letter to Theresa May calling on her to “scrap the Government’s approach to health and safety deregulation and think again.” The letter decried the pressure from ministers in recent years to axe regulations as “a matter of principle”. Regulations should not be characterised as “burdens on business”, it read: “We believe it is vital that this disaster marks a turning point for improved fire safety awareness and wider appreciation that good health and safety is an investment, not a cost.”
A new review
The wider community of Health and Safety professionals are set to play an vital role in the enormous task ahead. Many will be feeding knowledge and expertise into the government’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, announced in late July and being led by Dame Judith Hackitt.
While the review scrutinises the regulations and the public inquiry examines the evidence, a more urgent Building Safety Programme is also underway, with the government aiming to check and test buildings with ACM cladding which might pose risks to the public, be they social housing, schools or hospitals.
We will only see whether enough is going to be done when the Building Regulations and Fire Safety report is published next spring. The long term solutions need to be wider and deeper than using the right cladding and installing it correctly. The responsibility for safe buildings must be clearly defined and enforced by accessible regulation. There should be nothing vague or open to interpretation; that is the space where another catastrophe could happen.