Grenfell - what else are we missing?

It goes without saying that many lessons will have to be learned as a result of the horrifying Grenfell Tower tragedy, but improving the way Building Regulations are applied and enforced should be at the top of the list, according to Tim Rook*of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

The investigations over the coming weeks and months must address apparent systemic failures and for some time now, BESA has been highlighting the fire risks associated with the poor cleaning of ventilation systems; in particular extraction systems from kitchens.

There have been examples in the past of fires occurring in these systems, such as the Heathrow Burger King fire in December 1997 where a small spark in a clogged air vent above the kitchens led to flames spreading 200m along the web of air ducts in Terminal One's roof. More than 300 flights to Terminal One, which handles domestic, Irish and European flights, had to be cancelled or diverted, with thousands of passengers delayed and stranded. A British Airports Authority spokesman said that the fire had been contained by a £1m fireproof membrane in the terminal’s roof, but such a precaution is prohibitively expensive for the wider built environment.

Of the 24,000 accidental fires per year in commercial properties, around a quarter are attributed to cooking and extraction systems. Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order of 2005, extraction systems must be included in fire risk assessments and action must be taken to minimise potential fire risk to any buildings and occupants. Failure to carry out proper cleaning and maintenance could also lead to a breach of Environmental Health regulations and can even invalidate fire insurance policies.

This is symptomatic of the wider culture of neglect in our regulatory environment. There are rarely any prosecutions for missing quality standards in buildings and almost no attention is paid to wider goals like energy efficiency under Part L. But when specifically examining ventilation hygiene, the systems are out of sight and therefore, unfortunately, out of mind. With a number of systems also badly designed they are difficult to access and simply become a hidden danger.

This is a maintenance issue rather than a construction one and, whilst the investigations around Grenfell are looking at construction issues, we must not forget the massive problems that there could be in existing buildings inner workings rather than just their cladding. Many extraction systems are located in areas of high population, in hotels, stadia, shopping centres, below offices and below housing. A major incident in Harrogate involving a kitchen duct fire in 2014 involved 14 self-contained social housing flats over two floors and residents had to be re-housed with the fire service on site for 5 days damping down the fire.

When the fire safety maintenance of commercial kitchen extract systems is ignored or done on the cheap, a huge fire risk is the result’ says Gary Nicholls, Managing Director of SwiftClean, one of the UK’s longest established providers of duct cleaning services and BESA Accredited. He goes on to note:

Currently there is no requirement on the fire service reporting system to identify when fires have been transported by ductwork. I have written to many MP’s on the issue and have been advised it is being considered, but have yet to see any change. If this were a requirement of the reporting system then the extent of the issue and lack of control could be better identified.’

Many tower blocks in the UK lack any form of fire separation in their extraction systems and the typical deposition is highly flammable. Where this is the case they should be upgraded to include fire separation between dwellings and ducts should be kept regularly cleaned. While we appreciate that money cannot simply be thrown at every problem in the UK, it is worth considering the resources that are being wasted though the fire service, due to the lack of control of grease levels and duct cleaning throughout the UK and the risk to the general public that this creates.

There are numerous blocks where shared ventilation ducts and shafts pass from occupancy to occupancy with no fire break to the ducts. BESA will continue to facilitate best practice in our sector and will be campaigning on the need for surveys of such ducts and shafts in all multi tenanted blocks. Retrospective fire partitions can then be fitted as required to increase protection via dampers and intumescent grilles for example, while shafts can also be cleaned to remove combustible deposits.

The ventilation hygiene sector is growing as building owners face rising costs and more stringent conditions imposed on them by insurers concerned about fires. The need to keep food preparation areas free of contamination is another increasingly important area of potential risk and depends on systems being kept clear. All employers are subject to health & safety at work legislation, and since it was first developed in 1998 by BESA, TR/19 has been widely accepted by the built environment sector and British insurers as the standard to which ventilation systems should be kept.

The BESA launched in May of this year the Accredited Grease Hygiene Operative (GHO) course, developed in conjunction with TR/19 and our expert members from the BESA Ventilation Hygiene Group. Once again it has taken a major tragedy to force action, and we need to reverse the inexorable erosion of professional standards that has taken place over the past several decades.

Over the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of blogs covering topics such as procurement processes, digital systems, and the regulatory framework. These blogs will re-examine long-standing issues in the sector to look at how best we, the industry, can take action following a tragedy which has sadly, once again highlighted the need for change.


*Tim Rook is technical director at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

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