Chemical engineers talk fire safety

Article by Amanda Doyle

Erin Johnson and Dame Judith Hackitt with their reports on building safety

FIRE safety is important to all of us, both in residential buildings and on industrial sites, and chemical engineers are well suited to assessing fire safety by applying systems thinking and a risk-based approach. Two chemical engineers, Dame Judith Hackitt and Erin Johnson, have applied those skills to buildings safety, by compiling reports for the UK parliament.

Following the tragic fire at Grenfell in June 2017, Dame Judith Hackitt, former president and Fellow of IChemE, was asked to perform an independent review of building regulations separate to the Grenfell inquiry. Her review, Building a Safer Future, recommends a complete overhaul of the UK’s building regulations with a new regulatory framework to create a simpler but robust approach to safety.

Erin Johnson, chemical engineering PhD student at Imperial College London, spent three months at the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) via the Ashok Kumar Fellowship, which is supported by IChemE and the North-East England process Industry Cluster (NEPIC). She produced a briefing note for parliamentarians, Fire Safety of Construction Products, which looks at how construction products are regulated, tested, and classified, along with the challenges involved.

I caught up with Dame Judith and Johnson to discuss their experiences of writing the reports, how they applied their chemical engineering backgrounds, and their surprise at the current disorder of the construction industry.

A different way of thinking

“How do you manage something when you don’t know what you’ve been given?” asked Dame Judith, talking about building designs that are not reviewed, controlled, or documented prior to being handed over to the building owner. “The way the construction industry works is that they complete a building, they hand it over, and then they don’t think about it anymore, where as in the way we think about chemical plants, someone builds it and then someone operates it from there on.”

“I was really shocked when I saw how disjointed the system can be and how few people understand the risk-based approach that we use every day, such as HAZOPs,” said Johnson. “You don’t just bolt something on; you perform a really long analysis as to why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, and what are all the possible consequences.”

Applying systems thinking was key to Dame Judith’s report.

“There are two ways that I applied systems thinking to the review – one was in terms of mapping the regulatory system. The government doesn’t look at its regulatory structures as a system to test whether they work, and that’s how you end up with that incredibly complex system of regulations where bits get bolted on here and there and nobody stops a takes a step back and says ‘does this work?’ in the way that we would do as chemical engineers if we were drawing a flow diagram. The second thing is that the buildings themselves are systems, just as a chemical plant would be a complex system.”

Seeing the building as a whole system is important because focussing on only one particular aspect of safety is not the solution.

“The best analogy I can draw for chemical engineers is Buncefield,” said Dame Judith. “There will be some people that think that Buncefield happened because of the failure of a level gauge. That’s a bit like saying that Grenfell happened because of cladding. The real lesson to take from Buncefield is that the whole management system was broken and that’s the root cause that needed to be fixed – not just running around checking all the level gauges. It’s analogous – the cladding is the manifestation of this particular problem. But when you look behind that at what’s wrong with the system, there are many ways in which the system could fail in future and it will not necessarily be cladding in the future.”

No quick fix

Despite the urgent need for reform in building regulations, there is no easy or quick solution. “If you really want to change something properly – if you need to change the system – that’s never going to be fast,” said Johnson.

“There are people, that for a whole variety of reasons that are easy to understand, want a quick solution,” said Dame Judith. “That’s why they were grasping for ‘why don’t we just ban cladding and that will fix the problem?’ – but it won’t, it will fix a part of the problem. Even the whole question of banning cladding is an interesting one because what does that mean? The cladding that was on Grenfell should never have been there and the rules already say you should not have put that on a building.”

“Then whose rules are you even listening to?,” added Johnson, describing how some people think that the rules are clear cut when in fact there are many different forms of guidance. She also mentioned that there is an attitude that if a practice is common then it must be ok. “I think people weren’t trying to do anything maliciously, but there are so many different products and it’s so difficult to actually to understand if your entire system works or not.”

They also discussed the different issues for implementing new regulations. For new buildings, all stakeholders are keen to set a new standard for safety, but for current buildings many problems arise with cost and legal issues, particularly as to who should pay for safety improvements.

“Is it your fault? Is it your problem? Is it your liability? Can you trace the person who built it? Will they take responsibility? It’s a really difficult issue,” said Dame Judith.

Moving forward

Johnson’s briefing is a single item that is distributed to parliamentarians and is also available online for anyone to read. “It’s there as a starting point to allow people to really have a bit of a background on what we have right now so that we know what we might have to change.”

Dame Judith’s report outlines how the system needs to be changed, including setting up a new regulatory body, and the next step towards it becoming policy is primary legislation. “There are many different workstreams, so this now needs to be turned into a major implementation project, some of which will be for industry to do, some of which will be for government to enact through legislation and policy change. A whole series of different workstreams that now need to be populated with people and managed in a co-ordinated way to make sure that we end up with the right outcome.”  

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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