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Fire safety and Director liability — three key learnings for ‘responsible persons’

AuthorsClaire BurrowsJon Walters

5 min read

Health & Safety, Building Safety

Fire safety and Director liability three key learnings for responsible persons

Six years on from the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, fire safety remains a high priority for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Two recent prosecutions serve as a stark reminder of companies’ obligations and the costly consequences of non-compliance — including for Directors.

Here, Partner Claire Burrows and Solicitor Jon Walters offer three key learnings for those responsible for health and safety.


Responsible persons

In health and safety law, The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 imposes a series of duties on ‘responsible persons’ — such as employers, owners of premises and persons in control of premises — regarding fire safety. These include conducting adequate fire risk assessments, ensuring the elimination or reduction of risks from dangerous substances and ensuring adequate escape routes in the event of fire. Since a worksite may have multiple ‘responsible persons’, it’s important for them all to understand their obligations under the Order.

In most instances, the Health and Safety Executive is responsible for enforcement of these duties as the Order forms part of the health and safety obligations placed on employers to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees and others affected by their business operations.


The facade of fire safety

In October 2023, Green Facades Ltd was fined £240,000 at Liverpool Magistrates’ Court and ordered to pay £5,405 in costs due to serious breaches of fire safety legislation. The company had been contracted to remove combustible aluminium composite panels and insulation material from The Circle — an eight-storey housing block in Liverpool — following the reappraisal of the safety of certain types of cladding in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.  

Despite prior enforcement actions by the HSE against the company at a different worksite, Green Facades Ltd neglected safety measures by leaving combustible materials exposed during removal, including on residents’ balconies — causing a serious risk to fire safety in a large building in Liverpool city centre.

The HSE also found inadequate safety measures for workers and residents (such as insufficient escape routes) and criticised the company’s failure to take account of published advice on the removal of combustible cladding.

The irony of handing out a hefty fine for breaches of fire safety legislation as a result of works to make safe a high-rise building at risk of fire wasn’t lost on the HSE. After the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, fire safety must be at the forefront of minds across the construction sector. The HSE has shown that it will use its enforcement powers where companies repeatedly fail to meet their duties.


Open flames and deliberate obstructions

Earlier this year, Manchester-based construction company Amro Construction Ltd and its director, David Taylor, faced HSE action for numerous safety failings — including fire safety — at a timber-frame housing development in Stoke-on-Trent.

Issues identified by the HSE included the company using an open flame gas stove near combustible material, inadequate fire precautions and failure on the part of the company to assess fire risks both on- and off-site. This was despite previous HSE advice and enforcement action.

These issues were found to be breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974. The company was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £1,587 in costs at North Staffordshire Magistrates’ Court. Interestingly, Mr Taylor was also fined in his personal capacity to the tune of £3,000 and ordered to pay £1,935 in costs.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974, Directors may be personally liable where breaches of the Act are committed with their “consent or connivance” or are attributable to “any neglect” on their part. The Court found that Mr Taylor had deliberately obstructed investigators by refusing to provide information.


Three key learnings

We advise all companies to:

  1. Understand your obligations as responsible persons for fire safety — have you conducted adequate fire risk assessments? Do you have plans in place for the safe management of combustible materials and in case of fire?
  2. Be vigilant in enforcing health and safety policies — simply having a policy isn’t enough to ensure compliance with the law. Companies must ensure that employees and contractors are adequately trained and abide by high standards of work to reduce the risk of fire.
  3. Co-operate with investigators — HSE investigations can be a stressful part of work in the construction industry, but it’s important to engage meaningfully with the authorities who are tasked with keeping people safe. Any failure to co-operate or action taken to obstruct may put individual directors, managers and officers of companies at risk of prosecution in their personal capacities.


Risk of harm

It's worth noting that for breaches of health and safety legislation — including under the Order — it’s the risk of harm that creates an offence. No actual harm needs to materialise for the HSE to successfully prosecute a duty holder.

As fines for health and safety offences can be unlimited (determined by the turnover of a company along with the likelihood and seriousness of the harm risked and the culpability of the duty holder) and also result in a criminal conviction (along with negative PR), it’s imperative that employers properly understand their duties and continually review and adapt policies and procedures to fully discharge their health and safety obligations.


Talk to us

Our dedicated health and safety law team has the expertise to guide you through the intricacies of fire safety legislation. 

We can develop an action plan to ensure that you effectively discharge your legal duties.

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