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Blocked fire escape - restaurant disaster averted by safety inspectors

Fire escape on the side of an appartment building
27th September 2013

Between  April 2011 and March 2012, a total of 223,000 fires were attended by Fire and Rescue Authorities in England, two per cent fewer than in the same period 2010-11. There were 4,277 non-fatal casualties and 304 fire fatalities, down 8 per cent on 2010-11 (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2012). 

While the number of casualties was slightly less than the previous year, it is still of some concern to note the high number of non-fatal casualties involved and the inevitable impact upon personal injury claims. Workplaces can be hazardous, as the recent London Duck Ferry fire shows.  All passengers and crew were safe and safety procedures followed but some employers are still prepared to take a risk with inadequate fire safety prevention and compromise the protection of  their workforce, either through neglect or deliberate disregard. According to the London Fire Brigade, 85 per cent of small and medium businesses, which suffer a serious fire are likely to never recover or cease trading within 18 months. 

Around a half of all fire-related deaths occur as a result of smoke inhalation, including noxious fumes from highly flammable chemicals or materials. In many cases the outbreak and rapid spread of fire could have been prevented by regular checking and maintenance of smoke detectors and fire extinguishing systems, such as overhead water sprinklers.

Adequate means of escape...

By law, an employer must protect the health, safety and welfare of the workforce including taking precautions against fire, fighting fire and provision of  adequate first aid equipment and facilities. Ensuring an adequate means of escape by keeping fire escapes and outside staircases free from obstruction and safe to use is crucial to safety and a legal obligation. 

Regrettably, we still hear of incidents where failure to carry out regular routine risk assessments of premises can lead to a tragic outcome for employees who become victims of their company oversight and neglect. 

In one recent case, a potential disaster which could have put the lives of 300 people at serious risk, was averted after fire safety inspectors visited the premises of a west London restaurant and banqueting suite. Despite repeated breaches of statutory fire regulations, the restaurant owners had still failed to carry out the necessary legal requirements. 

The inspectors found that the restaurant fire exit route was blocked with furniture, flammable materials were stored in the rear stairwell and the floor covered with oil. In addition, the fire exit doors themselves were also blocked, which would mean that escape was impossible.  In the event of a fire, all occupants would have been trapped with devastating consequences. 

The restaurant owners were subsequently, fined a total of £ 11,800 (inc. costs) for eight breaches of fire safety regulations at an appeal hearing.

Fire risk assessment...

In October 2006 the government introduced the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which places the emphasis on risk reduction and fire prevention. Under the Order, people responsible for commercial buildings where there is a total of five or more employees. i.e. the employer, owner or duty holder, are required to carry out a mandatory, detailed fire risk assessment identifying risks and hazards, which must be recorded. 

In particular, the responsible person for the premises is required to take additional measures to ensure fire safety where flammable or explosive materials are used or stored.