Coroner warns builders may not be aware of fire-safety rules

A coroner has raised concerns that contractors may not be aware of their duties under current fire-safety rules.

The warning was issued after the inquest into the death of Tomas Ceida, a nightclub worker who died in Greenwich, south London, following a fire in August 2016. According to reports, he had been asleep in the building when the fire started.

Construction work was taking place at the club, Studio 338, when the blaze broke out. Ceida, 28, died in hospital two days after suffering severe burns and smoke inhalation.

Fire brigade, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and police investigations into the incident finished in 2021 and an inquest was held in February this year.

In a document called Prevention of Future Deaths released last week, Andrew Harris, senior coroner for London Inner South, noted that the inquest jury concluded that an acoustic wall compacted with hay or straw and unsafe hot works contributed to the tragedy.

The jury also concluded that there had been a failure to agree and communicate roles and responsibilities for fire safety on the construction site that led to inadequate fire alerts and a failure to conduct an orderly evacuation of the building.

According to the News Shopper local newspaper, the construction work involved the installation of a new glass ceiling at the club.

The contractor on site is named in the coroner’s report as JHS Contracts, a London-based firm that appears to have no online presence and is not registered under that name at Companies House.

Harris’s report noted that JHS did not keep adequate documentation about its role on site and had no evidence to show how individuals at the company ensured responsibility for fire safety and evacuation had been competently adopted.

It also said: “It is understood that changes in the law and duties of securing general fire precautions has changed since the fire. It is not clear that the public and future contractors are necessarily aware of the processes and duties.

“The coroner is concerned whether there is a lack of public awareness, which may be a risk to future deaths.”

In July last year, the HSE released an updated version of its 104-page Fire Safety in Construction guidance document, which now includes information about the elimination or reduction of fire risks at the pre-construction stage as required by the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015.

Harris’s report also noted that Greenwich Council’s building control department was aware of the acoustic wall being made of straw or hay rather than being a living wall as per planning permission granted in 2013, but did not follow this up with the leaseholder.

He said the council also did not inform the fire brigade when it discovered this in 2016.

Harris said he was writing to the former director of JHS, Greenwich Council, HSE and London Fire Brigade “to enable them to review and report on the individual matters in which they may be able to mitigate further risks and to examine the current collaborative arrangements and ensure they are appropriate and safe”.

He has given them until May to reply to his concerns.

An HSE spokesperson said: “We are aware of the coroner’s comments and will be responding in due course.”

A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “We are in the process of compiling our response and will submit it to the coroner’s office within the deadline.”

Greenwich Council declined to comment.

In 2019, CN examined a “deeply concerning” upward trend in site fires and explored how contractors could mitigate the risks.

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