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Risk assessment of shared buildings

Stacey Collins, Head of Environment, Health and Safety at International Workplace, asks who is responsible for fire safety risk assessment in the common areas of shared buildings

The Grenfell Inquiry began to hear technical evidence for the first time in early June in the form of opening statements from many of the ‘core participants’. Several expert reports commissioned in the interim by respected fire engineers were immediately entered into evidence. These experts include Colin Todd, who currently chairs both the Institution of Fire Engineers panel responsible for the IFE register of fire risk assessors and auditors, and the Fire Risk Assessment Council of the Fire Industry Association. His extensive report, ‘Legislation, guidance and enforcing authorities relevant to fire safety measures at Grenfell Tower’, covers the somewhat grey area of whether a fire risk assessment under the Regulatory Reform Order is required for domestic premises.

The first thing Todd points out is: “The workplace fire precautions legislation (WFPL) required that employers carry out fire risk assessments. In my experience, very few fire risk assessments were ever carried out for blocks of flats under the WFPL. Moreover, in the case of blocks of flats, I am not aware of any material enforcement of the legislation by fire authorities before its revocation by the Fire Safety Order in 2006.”

The application of the fire risk assessment regime to domestic premises in any capacity is a fairly recent development. Furthermore, domestic premises “fall outside the scope of the Order, but the Order does apply to parts of premises used in common by the occupants of more than one private dwelling”. That would mean the landings, corridors and stairs and so on that the tenants share the use of. These areas could constitute a workplace. Interestingly for Grenfell, the doors to the flats themselves may well have formed part of those workplaces and legally belonged to the landlord. We will no doubt hear more about the performance of those doors in the course of the inquiry.

Article 9 of the Fire Safety Order requires “the Responsible Person to carry out a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment, the significant findings of which must be recorded…The risk assessment must be reviewed regularly to keep it up to date. It must also be reviewed if there is a reason to suspect that it is no longer valid or if there have been significant changes in the matters to which it relates, including when the premises undergo significant changes or extensions.” Note this does not apply in Scotland, where no fire risk assessments are required for the common parts of blocks of flats.

It’s debatable to what extent you can actually carry out an effective fire risk assessment in a workplace like a corridor, which sits between several rooms of unknown fire load and combustibility. There was indeed no decent guidance on what was required to comply until 2011 when the LGA guide came out. This says, quite baldly: “Application of the FSO to blocks of flats has proved problematic: it has led to widely varying outcomes. In some buildings, significant work to upgrade fire safety standards within the common parts has been undertaken to satisfy this legislation. In others, none has been considered necessary.”

Concerns are also raised in the guide about the variability in quality of risk assessments and the competency of advisers. But one thing most can agree on is that the model for how a risk assessment should be carried out has been established in the publicly available standard PAS79:2012, drafted by CS Todd & Associates. The guide also suggests four types of assessment – really degrees of depth – from a visual inspection through to invasive inspection and destructive investigation and testing. Most risk assessments will probably be type 1.

Todd’s report offers a further insight: government advice (namely from Secretary of State Brandon Lewis in 2011) is that “fire safety information should be made available to residents in the light of the findings of a risk assessment”.

The LGA guide insists landlords advise tenants on fire safety. In managing the common parts of buildings, it advises either a zero tolerance strategy – where the common parts are sterile (no fire load) – or a managed approach, where the landlord/managing agent/responsible person actively controls and manages the shared spaces in the building. In either scenario a substantial amount of dialogue and cooperation between landlord and tenant is both expected and demanded. The rule is that the job starts with a risk assessment – it doesn’t end with one.

About Sarah OBeirne

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