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Construction can learn safety lessons from aviation’s ‘Just Culture’

Emily Booth
  • 2 Comments

In the world of aviation reporting of errors and near-misses is encouraged to prevent similar mistakes turning into disasters. The building sector needs to adopt the same approach to prevent tragedies like that at Grenfell Tower, says Emily Booth

Since the terrible events of 14 June, you – our readers – have raised a massive £20,000 to help the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. The proceeds of the appeal will go to the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund, and your generosity will make a real difference. As Mark Astarita, executive director of fundraising at the British Red Cross, says: ‘These donations, distributed through the London Emergencies Trust, will enable us to support those who have been left injured, bereaved, or homeless by this tragedy.’ Thank you for your support.

Against a stark background of grief, anger and the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower, it is essential that the public inquiry moves quickly to establish a clear picture of what, why and how the appalling fire happened – and that measures are put in place to prevent such a thing happening again.

But it is a matter of real concern that no architects will sit on the expert fire safety panel set up following the awful blaze. The new independent group has been put in place to advise on the immediate measures needed to ensure the safety of residents in hundreds of tower blocks around the country. It is headed by Ken Knight, the ex-London Fire Commissioner and former government chief fire and rescue adviser. He will be aided by three ‘core members’ of the group: Peter Bonfield, chief executive of the BRE; Roy Wilsher, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council; and Amanda Clack, president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and a partner at Ernst & Young.

Where is the expert architect representation on this panel? This omission speaks volumes about the profession – most keenly about the diminished authority of the architect in the building process. Many architects have significant knowledge and training in the area of fire safety and building regulations and should be key in informing a better, safer, and – crucially – a joined-up building approach.

In an environment where risk is passed down the line, where the regulatory process has been part-privatised and where specification changes happen late in the day, there is an absence of overview – of seeing the whole, complete picture. In this gap, risk and error can thrive.

We need a cultural shift away from buck-passing and fear of blame

The inquiry should apportion responsibility as required. More importantly, it should demand improvements and deliver a clear way forward, without obfuscation or ‘wriggle room’. Meanwhile, the fire safety panel should move urgently to stop the most glaring shortfalls in tower fire safety.

Over and above this, we need a cultural shift. A move away from buck-passing and fear of blame to a recognition that mistakes need to be acknowledged as soon as they are made, by whomever they are made, for the benefit and safety of all. The world of aviation has embraced its so-called ‘Just Culture’, in which reporting of errors and near-misses is encouraged to prevent similar mistakes turning into disasters. The rate of airline accidents has now dropped to one crash for every 8 million take-offs. 

The healthcare sector is learning from this approach. The construction industry – and architecture – should, too. Architects have traditionally had the ‘whole’ view of a project in all its facets. This custodianship has been eroded over time and the profession needs to work hard to get it back. The building sector and the built environment as a whole would benefit.

It’s time to stand up and be counted.

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

    Just got the latest edition of the Architects’ Journal, and as expected there’s a lot of talk about the Grenfell Tower fire, including an editorial by Emily Booth moaning about the lack of architectural representation on the independent group set up by Sajid Javid to advise on the immediate measures necessary to ensure the safety of tower blocks; a detailed article by Ella Braidwood on the failings of the Building Regulations in ensuring the fire safety of cladding added to tower blocks; and an opinion piece by Catherine Slessor looking at the fire in the context of changing attitudes to council housing in the UK; plus a bunch of letters on the failure to retro-fit sprinklers in tower blocks, the failure of the RIBA to show leadership (surely not!) in the wake of the fire, and the failure of architects in general offering professional insight into its causes.

    Not once, though, in all this breast beating, is estate regeneration mentioned. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the application of flammable cladding to a reinforced concrete tower block was just some crazy idea that the council came up with, rather than part of a UK-wide programme of estate regeneration being implemented through Private Finance Initiatives which – whether as the Haringey Development Vehicle that is handing £2 billion of land and 21 council estates over to property developer Lendlease, or with Homes for Lambeth, which will similarly hand the redevelopment and management of 6 estates over to private contractors and management teams – is replicating the same managerial and technical conditions that led to the Grenfell Tower fire. There are 170 London estates that we know of that are threatened with, or already condemned to, privatisation, demolition and social cleansing by Labour councils alone.

    Sure, call loudly for a review of Document B on fire safety that the Department of Community and Local Government has sat on for 4 years, bleat about not having a seat at the big table, or shed a few tears over the treatment of the poor, but for Christ’s sake don’t say anything that might damage our commissions on one of the largest sources of income for architects through the estate regeneration programme in which the entire profession is complicit but which it refuses to question. No wonder architects haven’t been invited to share their professional opinion on what caused the Grenfell Tower fire: they can’t even speak the truth to each other.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • Seeking answers to awkward political and sociological questions is surely essential if the root causes of the disaster are to be uncovered and learned from - but the sudden volte-face in the long standing government refusal to tackle the root causes of the contaminated blood scandal shows how reluctant our democratic society (led by the nose?) can be to uncover unpleasant facts. Until forced to.

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