Are Fire Safety Laws Fit for Purpose?

Are Fire Safety Laws Fit for Purpose?

By Claire Rizos BSc(hons), Dip2.OSH, CMIOSH

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?

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