Lawrence Webster Forrest (LWF), Fire Engineering and Fire Risk Management Consultants
Lawrence Webster Forrest (LWF), Fire Engineering and Fire Risk Management Consultants


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MS43 Fire Safety Reform, Are you Ready?

Right click to download this fileMS 43.pdf

In our previous Bulletin, Fire Safety Reform Are you Ready?, we looked at imminent changes proposed to fire safety legislation in this country. We discussed the likely form of the legislation and in order to prepare for the obligations imposed on employers and building managers, we discussed the need for robust fire safety strategies to be put in place. In the previous bulletin we concentrated on the detail end of the strategy, i.e. what physically needs to be in place to achieve an acceptable audit trail to withstand detailed scrutiny, all this based around the Fire Risk Assessment process. In this bulletin we concentrate on higher-level issues that should drive fire safety strategies. Issues such as the development of a safety culture within the organisation and how this should be reflected by senior management support exemplified by clear policy and action.

It is our broad experience that organisations, especially those having buildings with fire certificates issued under current legislation, will by and large meet some form of fire safety standard in terms of physical fire safety installations. Any shortfall in standard is usually easy to identify and remedy. By far the biggest problem we encounter when undertaking fire strategy and risk assessment exercises is the lack of integrated fire safety management procedure with supportive training. It is recognised that assignment of safety duties and then attendance at training sessions to gain competence in the execution of those duties is not the core activity of the organisation and is obviously a distraction to the business process. It is when well meaning middle managers charged with fire safety responsibility meet resistance or indifference from higher management that the whole safety process tends to break down. This lack of commitment is contrary to building a ‘safety culture’ which in turn is why fire safety management within organisations often fails.

With the proposed changes to fire safety legislation requiring more responsibility to be taken by the organisation in providing the means to both identify and address fire safety issues, it is imperative that the company has a robust strategy supported by a ‘safety culture’ which in turn is driven by senior management. This is important for several reasons. Firstly it is the intent of the new legislation to engender this safety consciousness not just for fire safety but for general health and safety in the workplace. It also demonstrates (following a serious fire incident) that the occurrence was an unavoidable accident and this can only be substantiated by demonstration of evidence. We have known investigations initiated in response to a fire undertaken by the fire authority and Health and Safety Executive, escalate to the entire safety approach of the organisation throughout its buildings portfolio because it failed to demonstrate sound policy and commitment.

How does an organisation develop a ‘safety culture’?

To achieve any form of cohesive approach to safety within an organisation, the initiative has to be generated from the most senior level of management. The business owner, Board of Directors or Trustees must be seen to be fully behind any initiative. Furthermore, the Safety Policy document covering fire safety must reflect constant referral to and inclusion at this level within the on-going process of safety management. Due to the close synergy between the requirements of health and safety in the workplace and fire safety, it is often sensible at higher level policy definition to integrate the processes and devolvement of responsibility down through the organisation. The devolvement should indicate staff posts with safety duties and clearly state those responsibilities. It should indicate what level of training achievement is required by the individual in that post to competently undertake his or her duties. Having established a devolved responsibility and the training needs analysis of those individuals, a means of communication is necessary both up and down the line of responsibility to ensure that risk is identified at the level at which it is created and then communicated to the level at which it is recorded and responded to. Clear upward communication is then required to ensure that the highest levels of management are aware of incidents and trends in safety and that appropriate funding and other resources are made available to remedy any deficiencies identified, either informally or through the risk assessment process.

It is not a simple matter to change the culture of an organisation. Attitudes and approach at all management levels within an organisation need to be affected positively for a lasting change to occur. Some of the most frequent stumbling blocks in modern change management where an organisation intends to change its approach to a specific issue relate to local politics or the vested interests of individuals. In terms of the concept of a ‘safety culture’ this problem should not be evident, because surely all members of an organisation want their environment and their own persons safe from harm. So with parochial interests put to one side, a safety culture could be encouraged simply by the will of top management supported by middle managers and staff. But is it that simple?

From our experience, it is clear that all members at all levels of organisations agree that a safety culture is a good thing, what generally stalls the initiatives are competing priorities. It is often that large organisations employ a safety officer or risk manager to offset their obligations to statutory duty. What level of support that individual gets is varied and depends solely on the attitude of the most senior management as to the importance of safety in the workplace. For some organisations risk management is an integral part of their operation and indeed their product or service could be adversely affected if risk and safety were not closely managed. In these companies safety is part of the organisational routine because if a hazard were realised it would affect the core activity of the company. Our argument is that safety of staff, arguably the most important asset any organisation has, is of key importance to all firms no matter what their core activity and it is therefore good management practice to place high priority on their safety. Most firms fail to exploit the wider positive business aspects of an integrated health and safety and fire safety strategy.

We would argue further that if safety issues are required by legislation - and it makes business sense to protect the most valuable asset the company has - then fire and health and safety should be reflected in the business strategy and in turn through the codified message given by employers to all staff in the form of policy and procedures. We also believe that a responsible attitude by employers to staff in this respect that is overt, engenders a positive attitude from staff to the employer, which in turn must affect general attitudes to core activities and the sense of being valued. In these days of employment turbulence where skilled workers are valued, this attitude must assist in staff retention issues.

How then do you test your organisation to judge the degree to which it has a ‘safety culture’? We suggest the following simple questions, which if honestly answered will give a good indication:
o Do staff safety issues figure in the business strategy? At departmental level, is there a desire and facility to question and respond to safety issues?
o Does the organisation have a clear policy for health and safety and fire safety of staff and visitors?
o Does the policy document reflect responsibility acceptance and
devolvement throughout and at all levels of the organisation?
o Are there appropriate health and safety and fire safety procedures in place to implement the policy objectives?
o Is there a training programme combined with competency assessment scheme or those with devolved responsibilities?

In summary then, it is our belief, supported by evidence gathered in the process of interaction with a large cross-section of businesses and organisations, that generating a safety culture will ultimately bring positive results beyond purely providing a safe place to work. Subject to the type of organisation, the benefits could be extended beyond staff to visitors and others who may use the buildings you occupy. Support from the highest level of the organisation and the development of a robust Safety Policy document that is supported in all senses by senior management and contributed to by all levels of the organisation is paramount. An organisation able to report in terms of its corporate governance that it has good management of safety risks to the business, must engender confidence with all stakeholders in the company. But, most important of all, management can reasonably say that they have done all that is reasonably possible to ensure the health and safety and fire safety of its staff and visitors.

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