Small businesses are still 'playing with fire' despite being almost a decade on from radical reform of fire safety regulation. A recent survey conducted by FireUK.co.uk found that 90% of the 500 small businesses surveyed, which included a number of licences premises, were unaware of the requirement for fire risk assessments to be carried out.  

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which replaced more than 100 different pieces of fire safety legislation with one simple legislative framework, has been in force since 1 October 2006. It signified a move away from a prescriptive approach to fire safety to a risk-based model, thus bringing it in line with other workplace health and safety regulation and introducing significant changes, such as the abolishment of fire certificates.

The Fire Safety Order (FSO) was brought in under the Regulatory Reform Order in an attempt to ‘simplify, rationalise and consolidate existing legislation’. However, this latest survey indicates it may not have gone far enough.

Scope of the FSO

The FSO affects all businesses and premises such as buildings and open spaces where anyone could conceivably be at risk should a fire occur. It requires that all persons in control of premises including business owners and landlords take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of fire in the workplace.

Although employers and business owners have always had general fire safety responsibilities; under previous legislation, it had been for the Fire and Rescue Service's to determine those specific fire safety requirements. It is now for the 'responsible person' to protect his employees and those lawfully on the premises by carrying out fire risk assessments, identifying specific fire risks and putting in place adequate safety measures.

It was hoped that the movement to a risk-based approach, would provide more flexibility for businesses to tailor fire safety plans to suit their needs. However this approach relies upon businesses having the required knowledge and proactively managing the fire safety risks that apply to them. It appears that some small businesses simply do not have the resource to do this. From the findings of this recent survey it is clear that there is a severe lack of understanding amongst small businesses as to their fire safety responsibilities, particularly within the hospitality sector, which is putting lives at risk.

Enforcement of the FSO

It is an offence to fail to comply with any of the duties imposed by the FSO that give rise to a risk of death or serious injury. Failure to carry out fire reviews, identify risks and put safety measures in place can result in the imposition of an unlimited fine or in some cases a prison sentence of up to 2 years.

Since the introduction of the FSO we have seen an increase in enforcement activity, perhaps further indicating the existence of a lack of understanding as to fire safety responsibilities. In England alone during the period 2012/2013, 2,800 enforcement notices and 485 prohibition notices were issued and 58 fire safety prosecutions brought.  

It is not only enforcement activities that are on the increase, the penalties being imposed are too. The Court of Appeal decision to uphold a record fine of £400,000 for fire safety breaches by clothing retailer New Look for should be seen as a wake-up call for all businesses.

The court found that the level of the fine was not excessive given the seriousness of the offences, the size and nature of the company, and the risk to the public. Although the fire on 26 April 2009 at its Oxford Street store was not itself caused by the retailer and did not result in anyone being killed or injured, the company was convicted of failing to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, and failing to ensure that employees were given adequate fire safety training.

The decision confirms that fire safety offences are now being assessed and sentenced in the same manner as those under general health and safety, where it is the risk created rather than the actual harm caused by the breach that is of significance. The tough stance taken by the courts creates the potential for relatively minor incidents to lead to significant consequences. Small business owners who ignore their fire safety responsibilities risk not only hefty fines that could put them out of business, but a possible custodial sentence where an offence is committed with their consent, contrivance or as a result of their neglect.

Last week's fire at the ASOS warehouse in Barnsley is a timely reminder of just how disruptive fire can be to business; the online retailer was forced to suspend trading when the blaze ripped through the warehouse causing the loss of £22 million of stock. With the fire being treated as deliberate, businesses are reminded not only how important it is to get the basics of fire safety right, but to also ensure they are alive to the risks posed by external sources such as arson or neighbouring premises in their fire risk assessments.