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Safety first

Ignorance and poor practice in construction are compromising fire safety – and something needs to be done about it, argues Glyn Coates, Director at Zeroignition

Following the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, it was reported that the intumescent cavity closers, installed as part of the external elevation, were placed the wrong way around. This meant the under-fire barrier could not react to the fire by closing the cavity to prevent it from moving upwards through the building. Such an error raises the question of how the mistake arose in the first place.

Contractors are under increasing pressure to deliver bigger, quicker and cheaper builds – which can result in mistakes that cost lives. The construction industry shoulders much responsibility for people’s safety, and it’s rightly expected that a finished building is fit for purpose and fully compliant.

To achieve this, it’s imperative that projects are designed, specified and constructed by qualified and certified tradesmen. Nonetheless, in practice it appears that many contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder rather than to companies that have been researched and carefully vetted to ensure they have the necessary qualifications.

Generally, product specification stems from required performance and quality in relation to BS/EN or ISO testing. But who monitors this and how can we be sure we’re buying a building that has been built to the architect’s or designer’s performance specification? Or does it fall prey to ‘equal or approved’? Even though it’s the specifier who compiles the list of products required for a project, it’s the contractor who has the licence to use lesser-quality products to reduce costs. I would argue that this provision be abolished.

As Grenfell demonstrated so tragically, there’s an issue in the industry regarding insufficient policing of what’s being installed and how it’s being done. So who does the responsibility lie with? Is it the project or site manager, subcontractor or main contractor? The reality is nobody knows. Liability dodging, cost cutting and lack of organisation in the chain of command between specification, installation and maintenance are huge challenges – which our industry is failing to tackle.

There’s a widespread lack of understanding about fire control and the minimum standards required. Not many grasp the difference between reaction and resistance to fire, or understand that specifying a Euroclass A1 product does not mean it will achieve 60-minute performance. Clearly more education is required.

Fire protection tends to be an afterthought near the end of the design process, when it should be a fundamental component built into the initial design and product specification.

Two aspects of the build programme in particular require immediate attention. First, any product stated to be ‘equal and approved’ must be checked to ensure it meets the performance requirements, particularly with regard to fire. Second, the construction process needs to be supervised and policed to ensure that the right products are installed and maintained in the correct way by qualified contractors. This is an enormous task, all the more so in an industry that is notoriously resistant to change.

However, a few simple changes could improve the situation:

  • Materials should be checked to ensure they’re part of an umbrella accreditation and testing system to guarantee consistency and compliance from manufacturers.
  • Cost should not come first, especially with regard to material substitutions and appointment of contractors.
  • Quality control should be improved, with a clear chain of authority on builds to ensure there is a central role overseeing products, installation and construction methods.
  • Traceability is important – all components in fabricated systems need to be marked and logged to ensure that if the worst happens, the subcontractors and manufacturers involved are held accountable.
  • Flexibility in design – architects and clients need a better understanding of the limitations of materials and their costs, so there’s less chance of specifying something that will have to be altered later.

The use of monitored and checked components to ensure products meet performance specifications is an important lesson we can learn from offsite manufacturers. The introduction of quality checks and tests during component assembly in the factory environment makes it simple to develop and implement industry-standard certifications. This means that when delivered to site for installation, the workforce is qualified and has up-to-date knowledge of the products and the building as a ‘system’.

It should be obvious that materials should not be substituted for reasons of cost if this compromises safety – yet it happens in the construction industry. The situation requires a global change in attitude across construction. Quality and safety must be top priorities from the earliest design stages. One adjustment would be to introduce third-party material accreditations from a body like the British Board of Agrément (BBA), instead of relying on manufacturers to self-certify.

Although any change is likely to be slow, offsite manufacturing seems to be heading in the right direction. Applying this way of thinking to all construction market sectors is possible, but measures need to be taken now to ensure quality control over components being manufactured. It’s the only way to give clients and specifiers peace of mind over what they’re buying.

The lowest cost should not be the first consideration when it comes to construction. Cost-effectiveness is important, but must not outweigh building safety, quality or performance. Research and due diligence are key to helping the industry improve its standards, as is the simple step of refusing to work with sub-quality contractors and manufacturers.

We know the changes that are needed. Taking inspiration from modern methods of construction and good practice in similar industries, we can translate the same high standards and way of working to the mainstream construction environment. It’s time to go back to basics and change the foundations of how we work.

About Sarah OBeirne

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