Fire Safety – New Practical Fire Warden Training Course

In the light of  the judgement in the ‘New Look’ fire prosecution, PFP Safety Services is now offeringing a new practical Fire Warden training course. This course consists of a practical scenario with smoke filled rooms, searching of the building  to ensure full evacuation and noting areas of fire to enable adequate  information to be given to the Fire Service on their arrival. Use of our new ‘Evacuation Control Board’ system, practical use of Fire Extinguishers, knowing how to read and re-set the Fire Alarm panel and replace ‘Break Glass’ panels. This course is designed with safety for employees and other users of your premises.

31 August 2010

Hilary Ross of Bond Pearce Law Firm

Hilary Ross examines the New Look case – a prosecution under The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) 2005, which caused some disquiet in health and safety circles, not least on account of the size of the penalty imposed.

On 26 April 2007, a fire broke out on the second floor of fashion retailer New Look’s Oxford Street store in London. The fire alarm was activated, the fire brigade called, and the building evacuated. The fire resulted in part of Oxford Street being closed and adjacent stores evacuated.

The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) investigated immediately, but the cause of the fire was never determined. The investigation ran for almost two years until the LFEPA commenced a prosecution against the retailer. A total of 35 alleged breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) was eventually reduced to two offences:

  • failing to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment; and
  • failing to have in place adequate training.

Entering a guilty plea to both charges, New Look was sentenced on 25 November 2009 to pay £400,000 in fines (£250,000 for the risk-assessment charge and £150,000 for the training charge), together with £136,000 of costs. This represents the largest fine ever imposed in relation to breaches of the RRO and is very high in relation to health and safety cases characterised by similar facts.

The risk assessment

The prosecution’s case contended that one consequence of the failure of the risk assessment was confusion on the evening of the fire. Instead of being ushered by staff to safe escape routes and, thereby, to designated fire exits, customers made for the main exit by routes that took them under the seat of the fire on the second floor.

Inspection of the building after the fire revealed a number of failings in the physical condition of the escape routes, which should have been identified in the fire-safety risk assessment, and rectified. The basement was used as a shop floor and there were two escape routes via exit doors at the rear. However, building works obscured a sign indicating one of the routes, so, if there had been a fire in the basement near the front of the premises, the lack of effective signage would have risked the escape of customers in the direction of the fire rather than away and into protected escape routes.

Along one such route, the corridor was partially obstructed by plastic crates, some containing stock, stacked to a height of 1.7 metres. These both created a fire hazard and restricted access.

The fire-exit doors from the basement were controlled by a locking mechanism, which required a swipe card to release it and did not appear to be connected to the fire-alarm system so as to unlock the doors in an emergency. On one of the doors, the break glass and emergency-release button were situated on the wrong side, rendering it inaccessible to those seeking an exit from the basement into the fire-escape corridor.

Inspection of the ground floor revealed that there was no natural lighting to illuminate one of the staircases, nor any emergency lighting. On the ground-floor landing, clothing racks and cardboard boxes were causing obstruction. An open fire door had also overcome the self-closing mechanism, thereby exposing the escape route, in the event of fire, to increased danger from smoke inhalation. In addition, a number of combustible items was found stored in the landing area serving a staircase along an emergency exit route.

A particular issue was that New Look had developed its risk assessment in line with government guidance, but it was largely generic in form and effectively a ‘tick-box’ exercise to be completed by the store management at each of the retailer’s premises. At the Oxford Street store, although management had identified the changes in the physical state of the building and problems with the swipe-card system, the risk assessment had not been updated to reflect these issues.

Unsurprisingly, it was the prosecution’s case that these were all serious issues, and that, consequently, the risk assessment was neither suitable nor sufficient. However, it should be noted that the premises would have sustained damage from fire-fighting activities, e.g. water damage or ceiling collapses, and, as such, there was no definitive way of knowing whether some of the things found occurred before, during, or after the fire.

Training

The training system employed by New Look at the time of the fire was not dissimilar to many other companies with multiple sites.

All new employees were trained in health and safety at their induction and required to complete a test to verify understanding. This was then refreshed annually using the same training material. But, when asked, New Look could not produce training records to demonstrate that all of its employees were trained. After the fire, all of the training records were transferred from the store to another premises, from where, after a period of time, they were destroyed, owing to them already having been damaged by water from the sprinklers.

The prosecution’s position was that training was ineffective, on account of staff failing to evacuate the store properly once the fire had started. However, New Look representatives were not interviewed under caution for more than 18 months after the incident. This caused problems in trying to ascertain what training staff had received, as they found it difficult to recall the details.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.