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A Wakeup Call – Not Only for Fire Safety

Category: Health & Safety | Jan Mirkowski Twitter | Published on: Nov 12, 2018 | Updated: Nov 12, 2018 Read more: Health & Safety

2018 saw the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster.  On 6th July 1988, a gas explosion and subsequent fire destroyed the North Sea oil production platform with the loss of 167 lives – putting a considerable peak in the “norm” of around 500 workplace deaths per year at that time.

The subsequent enquiry discovered a litany of errors, such as a design change, which placed the faulty gas recovery system too close to the control room (which, when evacuated, led to a loss of control).  Automatic fire-fighting systems were switched to manual, and employees waited in the nearby accommodation block for instructions and rescue – which never came.  A 13-month enquiry by Lord Cullen led to sweeping changes in the offshore industry.

Prior to Piper Alpha, the worst post-war UK fire I learned about during my training was the case study of “Summerland” a large indoor holiday complex on the Isle of Man.  In August 1973, a fire claimed the lives of 50 staff and holiday makers – exacerbated by the huge expanse of combustible acrylic windows, a single entrance/exit for 5,000 visitors, a lack of sprinklers and “stay put” advice when the alarm was belatedly raised by a ship offshore.

Surely no-one would clad a 1970’s building with combustible material?

In fact, Knowsley Heights tower block in Huyton, Merseyside received a facelift – quite legally at the time – with combustible cladding which led to the building burning down soon after in April 1991, mercifully without loss of life.

In June 1999, a similar fire broke out in at Garnock Court, Irvine, western Scotland with the loss of one life.  One of the recommendations made by a Select Committee was that combustible cladding should not be used on high-rise flats.  Subsequently, the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 introduced the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 meaning that no high-rise tower blocks in Scotland now uses the type of cladding installed on Grenfell Tower.

You can see where this is leading.  The Regulations did not apply to England – meaning that Grenfell Tower and nearly 500 other buildings south of the border were clad in combustible materials.

Before we rush to criticise the decision-makers of the era, pause to reflect.  How many times have incidents or near misses been reported during our watch in our own workplaces, which we determined to resolve – only to be then parked when more pressing priorities came along? How often is a fire risk assessment carried out?

Sir Martin Moore-Bick will continue his enquiry into the causes of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and inevitably there will follow a tightening of fire safety standards in buildings.  But let’s not wait until then!!!!

Let’s look at the warnings we have received from within our own workplaces and take action to improve standards without waiting to be prompted by a serious accident.

Remember: “a near-miss is a gift”

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