The formal opening of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry takes place today (14 September) in London. The Grenfell Tower fire is a tragedy that can be quickly dismissed as one that could not happen to you or your business. Without a doubt it is a tragic catalyst, grabbing everyone’s attention and putting the focus back on fire safety. However, more widely the tragedy like others which have happened before can be used as a management tool providing an opportunity to reflect on your own business, beyond just fire safety, to ensure positive influences on understanding of relevant duties, communication and a culture of compliance.

The Inquiry will be chaired by retired judge, Sir Martin Moore- Bick with the purpose of discovering what happened at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 and to make recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy happening again. The recommendations are likely to go far beyond cladding. General expectations are that a new fire safety regime will result. Any such “new” regime may be some time in coming. We will continue with updates and commentary where relevant but at this stage, as the Inquiry begins, take the opportunity to reflect on the existing fire safety regime and where the Inquiry may take us.

Parallels between Grenfell/Piper Alpha and the ensuing Inquiry are clear:

  • An unimaginable tragedy resulting in many deaths
  • A focus on apparently longstanding problems
  • Revelations post tragedy suggesting complex, multi faceted failings
  • Demands for accountability

Looking at the statistics relating to Piper Alpha in more detail, the tragedy happened on 6 July 1988. 167 people died with 30 bodies never recovered. The Inquiry was setup in 1988 and sat, chaired by Lord Cullen, for 16 months with 180 days of proceedings between November 1988 and February 1990. 106 recommendations were made and those recommendations changed the landscape of offshore health and safety resulting in the Offshore Safety Case Regime. Lord Cullen also chaired the Ladbroke Grove Inquiry which resulted in a similar overhaul of the management and regulation of rail safety.

It has been three months since the fire at Grenfell Tower which left at least 80 people dead. Early days and hard times for all those affected. The real impact will follow in the years to come and that will take some time. Whatever that outcome, the basis of fire safety, like any other relating to health and safety, has its origins in the general, goal setting duties of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. While in Scotland and England there are differences in the fire safety legislation both are based on the same principles of assessing risk. Any changes recommended south of the border are likely to be followed in Scotland.

In July, Police investigating the Grenfell Tower fire confirmed that they had reasonable grounds to suspect offences of corporate manslaughter may have been committed. The organisations involved, their cultures and ultimately the management teams who made decisions relating to those organisations will be subject to scrutiny. Imprisonment for any individuals targeted is a real possibility. The Corporate Manslaughter Corporate Homicide Act is only ten years old. It did not exist at the time of Piper Alpha. The legal mechanisms that were in place to exact corporate accountability then were clumsy and difficult to enforce. As a result there were no prosecutions of organisations or individuals. The outcome may be very different in respect of Grenfell.

The first hearing of the Grenfell Inquiry will be live streamed and available to watch during and after the hearing. We do not know yet when or how long the evidence sessions will take. One thing that is agreed is that the Inquiry will be necessarily lengthy.