EveryMonth (Oct 2011): Fire Safety – Don’t get your fingers burned

Fire safety is an area that all businesses need to take very seriously. The potentially devastating impact of a fire ought to be sufficient motivation for an organisation to ensure compliance with regulations – but if any further incentive were needed it comes in the form of changes to legal requirements. Although the legislation has been in place for a few years, it is now being implemented and enforced with vigour. Businesses of all sizes need to be aware of these developments – or run the risk of a hefty fine. 

Fire safety: Don’t get your fingers burned

Until relatively recently, complying with fire safety regulations was a simple process; a business would obtain a fire certificate from the Fire Service and continue their activities, secure in the knowledge that they were operating safely and at no risk of enforcement action.

But in 2005, new legislation placed the legal burden of responsibility for fire safety firmly on the business. As with so many laws, it has taken time for the regulators to find their feet and for business to adapt. Initially, regulatory action was minimal but that is changing – as demonstrated by a number of high profile cases.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005

The legislation seeks to consolidate fire safety requirements for business in one place. The duty of taking general fire precautions to minimise the risk of fire, and to mitigate any fire and its effects if one should break out – is the responsibility of you as the employer or the person in control of the premises concerned

Responsibility for enforcing the legislation falls upon a business’s local fire and rescue authority and in a stroke, the law has changed the role of the fire authorities from auditors into enforcers.

Wide range of powers

Inspectors have extremely wide powers to ‘do anything,’ (the words of the law, not ours) for the purposes of carrying out the Order. They can issue;

  • Alteration Notices: To ensure fire safety when there is a change of use to the premises;
  • Enforcement Notices: To identify breaches and specify remedial steps to be taken;
  • Prohibition Notices: To shut down premises – and correspondingly a business – if the enforcing authority feels that premises constitute a serious risk.

These powers are increasingly being used and failure to comply is a criminal offence. Between 2007 – 2008, 29,000 informal notices, 3,840 Enforcement notices, and 443 Prohibition Notices were issued. There were also 42 prosecutions. These significant figures have now risen substantially. Word on the ground from both the regulators and health and safety professionals is that there is currently a huge upsurge in enforcement of these provisions.

Businesses of all sizes are being caught; in June 2009 Shell was fined £300,000 with £45,000 cost for ignoring fire recommendations for three years and putting its staff at risk. In November of the same year, New Look was fined £250,000 and £150,000 for failing to provide a ‘suitable and sufficient’ fire risk assessment and adequate safety training for staff after fire broke out at one of its shops in London’s Oxford Street.

Take action now

Regardless of size, all businesses need to assess their fire risks under the Order, review fire safety precautions and ensure that, if a fire should break out, everything has been done to minimise the consequences.

Undertaking such a review is good business practice, can be incorporated into a business continuity plan and will help to prevent an unwelcome interruption from the new enforcers.