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What fire safety duties do contractors have?

With the Fire Safety Bill now in the works, Philippa Jones explains contractors obligations under existing law

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, the government and construction sector have reconsidered many aspects of building safety, and special consideration has been given to fire safety. To target the factors that contributed to Grenfell and bolster safeguards, reforms and proposed further legislation have been introduced.

There has been a lot of discussion about the Fire Safety Bill, but existing legislation should not be overlooked by employers, contractors, building owners and public authorities, as these laws continue to place fire safety obligations on anyone involved in building ownership and maintenance.

So, what is the existing legislation and are you complying with it?  

“Construction professionals need to review sites regularly and report changes that could affect fire safety”

Fire safety in all non-domestic premises in England and Wales (including communal areas of residential buildings with multiple homes, but excluding houses occupied as single private dwellings) is regulated by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRFSO). Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legislation regarding fire safety.

The order came into effect on 1 October 2006 and, broadly, it requires any person who has a level of control over premises to take reasonable steps to assess the risk from fire and put in place appropriate control measures including measures to ensure people can safely escape the premises in the event of a fire.

Who is classed as a responsible person and what must they do?

The RRFSO imposes various duties in relation to fire safety on each “responsible person”, who will be one or more of the following:

  • the employer, if the premises are a workplace and the workplace is under the employer’s control;
  • the person who has control of the premises (as occupier or otherwise) in connection with the carrying on by them of a trade, business or other undertaking (for profit or not);
  • the owner, where the person in control of the premises does not have control in connection with the carrying on by that person of a trade, business or other undertaking;
  • the trust, academy chain, or local authority of a public building such as a school or hospital.

Identifying the parties that fall under these definitions is not straightforward. For example, despite a contractor being employed by the employer to undertake works at the premises, the contractor itself would be a responsible person as it has control over the premises to carry out the works, and as such would have additional responsibilities and potential liabilities for any breaches of the RRFSO

What must a responsible person do?

The duties of a responsible person include:

  • undertaking fire risk assessments;
  • taking fire precautions to ensure the safety of employees and premises;
  • making arrangements for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of preventive and protective measures;
  • ensuring that routes to exits and emergency exits are kept clear at all times;
  • ensuring equipment is maintained in an efficient working order and in good repair;
  • co-operating and co-ordinating with other responsible persons to manage risks.

Do contractors have any additional requirements?

Contractors carrying out works at premises are likely to fall within the definition of a responsible person because they have control over the premises during work.

If you are a contractor, before starting work you should establish whether the building is a private residence or not, carry out a risk assessment and nominate a competent person to implement fire safety measures arising from that assessment. Transparency is key. Also, bear in mind that there is an expectation that the contractor will notify the owner of any fire safety risks identified and how to address them.

It is important to consider the risks posed by the storing of potentially flammable materials near fire exits, even if this is in a separate part of the premises from where the works are being carried out. Remember too that owners are also responsible persons, and where there is more than one responsible person they must both co-operate and co-ordinate with each other over fire safety risks.

What should construction professionals be mindful of?

Construction professionals need to review sites regularly and report changes that could affect fire safety.

Consideration should be given to whether works being performed make a contractor a responsible person, whether responsibilities can be shared with building owners, and how contractors can discharge their co-operation obligations to ensure fire risks are avoided.

What happens if you don’t comply?

Fire safety legislation is enforced by fire safety enforcement officers from the local fire and rescue service, but the Health and Safety Executive is the enforcing authority for any workplace that is on a construction site.

Enforcement officers can enter any workplace without notice. They conduct inspections to review the workplace, work activities and management of fire safety.

Non-compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order can lead to enforcement action including service of alterations enforcement and prohibition notices or prosecution of corporate bodies and individuals. Fines can be substantial and sentences of imprisonment can be imposed. Other consequences include reputational damage. Most importantly though, there is the potential human cost of a fire.    

The industry should watch out for developments in fire safety. For more on building safety, visit our re:build Hub.  

Philippa Jones is a solicitor at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson.

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