After Grenfell: more health and safety?
People talk about health and safety gone mad. The truth is it never really quite goes mad enough.’ This was the verdict of Times columnist David Aaronovitch, in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster. He reminded us of some of the terrible disasters that scarred the 1980s, including the deadly fires at King’s Cross Underground station and the stadium belonging to Bradford City FC, and wrote:
‘We realised, as a society, that when a stadium went up in smoke it was not bad luck, or an act of God, or a terrible but largely unavoidable combination of unfortunate circumstances. It was not something to respond to after the event, but rather it was something that must not be allowed to happen in the first place. That’s why we set about creating a culture of prevention.’
The precise causes of the inferno that ripped through Grenfell Tower on 14 June remain to be discovered. Certainly, everything we are hearing about the factors that may be implicated points to a potential, woeful disregard for obvious health-and-safety measures which, had they been observed, may have limited the extent of the blaze.
But these failings do not affirm the wisdom of our culture of ‘health and safety gone mad’. Indeed, this grim tragedy highlights some of the most destructive features of health-and-safety culture: its focus on myriad possible ‘risks’ rather than clearly defined dangers, and its promotion of bureaucratic box-ticking over human judgement. Health-and-safety culture focuses on the micromanagement of personal behaviour, and in the process often fails to address serious health-and-safety issues that are outside of individuals’ control.
From children playing conkers in school playgrounds to campaigners handing out leaflets in town centres, many aspects of everyday life are increasingly restricted and regulated on the grounds of ‘health and safety’. The stultifying effects of this for public life are examined in Josie Appleton’s book Officious. As she explains, ‘When every action is seen from the aspect of a potential hazard, the tendency is always to close down’. The use of procedures such as risk assessments to restrict individuals’ everyday behaviour renders them banal, and devalues more sensible and sensitive approaches to mitigating known dangers.
One of the clear lessons of the 2009 Lakanal House fire, where a blaze ripped through that south London tower block in unexpected ways and killed six people, was that major refurbishments can alter a building such that fires are no longer contained in individual flats: the principle on which they were built. Fire-safety experts have been warning for years that a disaster such as that at Grenfell Tower was ‘waiting to happen’. These warnings should have been heeded: a disaster on this scale could indeed have been prevented.
But taking on board the lessons of Lakanal House requires more than ensuring that particular aspects of refurbishment work – for example, the type of cladding – formally meet safety standards. That is important, but it has to be done within an assessment of the overall impact of the refurbishments, by people who understand how fire spreads in buildings. One big, general problem with the compartmentalised, box-ticking approach associated with ‘health and safety gone mad’ is that the value attached to professional judgement has been displaced by a defensive focus on compliance with specific rules. The proliferation of petty regulations can mean that we lose sight of the regulations that really matter.
Health-and-safety culture has also undermined the value attached to independent action: quick thinking, following instincts, and recognising where formal procedures are not enough. One sobering, yet inspiring, lesson of the Grenfell Tower disaster is that those who were able to take independent action, in defiance of the ‘stay put’ fire policy and procedures that may have been sensible in other circumstances, saved lives.
The undisputed heroes of the Grenfell Tower story are the firefighters, who entered the burning building again and again to quell the fire and search for survivors. Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, told the Guardian how she had to make a decision about sending in the firefighters in the absence of a formal assessment from a structural surveyor:
‘I did a dynamic risk assessment and we knew we were going to be doing things that were not following our normal procedures. Had we just followed standard fire brigade procedures, we would not have been able to commit firefighters in and conduct the rescues we did.’
Cotton describes the agony of knowingly committing firefighters to a situation that was ‘very unknown and very dangerous’, but balanced that risk ‘against the fact that you join the London Fire Brigade to save people’s lives. We wanted to save as many people as we could. That was the bottom line.’
The other heroes, who refused to rely on formal compliance with procedures, were Grenfell Tower’s residents. The residents’ instinctive understanding of the potential dangers posed by the refurbishments, informed by their own experience and their knowledge of tower-block fires elsewhere, led to a relentless campaign to force their Tenant Management Organisation to address their concerns. The contempt with which they were apparently treated speaks to the problem at the heart of ‘health and safety gone mad’: a view of individuals as the risk whose behaviour needs to be managed and contained, rather than as people who take responsibility for their homes.
In the wake of this disaster, there are already calls for changes that will improve the appearance, rather than the substance, of health and safety. Politicians should resist the temptation to focus on impression management, with kneejerk responses that pre-empt the findings of inquiries into what actually caused this blaze. Tower blocks cannot be knocked down, and people rehoused, overnight;
it will take time and skill to review which other homes may have been compromised by refurbishments or otherwise shoddy construction work or materials. Hectoring individuals about how to prevent a fire from starting does not help when a television or refrigerator explodes, and would only contribute to the defensive tenant-blaming that has had a profoundly negative effect on communities living in social housing.
But what can be done, immediately, is to help people living in fear for their homes to defend themselves in the event of a fire. Working fire alarms give people the choice to decide on their course of action: confidence in the ‘stay put’ policy has been badly shaken by this tragedy, and people need to be informed of a fire as quickly as possible, so that they can work out what to do. Fire extinguishers and blankets can give people the limited means to tackle a small fire at the outset. Above all, people should be encouraged to trust their instincts, and the authorities should learn how to trust people’s judgement, rather than focusing on how to manage their concerns.
First published by spiked, 20 June 2017