Companies admit health and safety failings over retail unit fire
From our colleagues at Barbour EHS.
Two companies have appeared in court for a plea and sentence hearing over the blaze at a large retail store in Belfast almost five years ago.
Both companies pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of employees at work.
The companies further admitted failing to ensure the safety of workers not in their employment.
Belfast Crown Court heard that on 28 August 2018, a crane driver raised the alarm about seeing smoke on the roof of the retail building on Royal Avenue.
Prosecuting barrister Philip Henry said that three employees – a qualified roofer and two trainees one of whom was a fire marshal – were working on the roof of the building.
Judge Philip Gilpin heard that at around 11am, they walked off the site for a tea break and two of them went to a nearby convienience store and the third went to the canteen.
Mr Henry said after the alarm was raised, workers on site tried to put out the fire with extinguishers but eventually the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service was contacted who took over the scene.
“There were approximately 1,300 to 1,500 people evacuated from the building, including 104 staff and 75 construction workers,” explained the prosecutor.
The rest were members of the public who had been shopping. Thankfully there were no injuries or fatalities.
A total of 302 firefighters attended the blaze along with 64 appliances. The fires spread quickly and was devastating to the building and took several days to extinguish.”
He said the principal contractor with overall responsibility for the site had been employed by the retail company. In turn a management company employed a specialist roofing firm, as a sub-contractor to carry out works on the roof.
The sub-contractor, the court heard, was to fit new insulation boards on the roof and cover it with felt using heat from a blow torch.
Mr Henry said a risk assessment carried out by both companies days before the work started was “ineffective in identifying risks – no checks were of what was underneath the roofing where the work was to be done”.
Although a ‘hot works permit’ was secured for the work, the sub-contractor did not submit or have it approved. “It was left in the work van.”
The permit stated that there should be a ‘fire watch’ on the building after the work was completed for one hour. It did not state there should be a continuous fire watch throughout the day.
But Mr Henry said that this was “inadequate” as there should have been a continuous watch on the works during tea breaks or at lunchtime.
“Both companies accepted a significant failing in their duty of care which goes to the heart of this case and to the heart of this sentencing exercise. Health and safety is a serious business,” added Mr Henry.
Brian Fee KC for the management company told the court:
“This was a significant adverse event in relation to Belfast and the disruption it caused to the city centre and people going about their everyday business.”
He said that unlike other health and safety cases, “there is no fatality in this case or any one seriously injured. In fact there was no injury to any person.”
Mr Fee added that despite the companies failings, the retail company continued to use the same management company to complete the works at this building and other ongoing projects with the retailer.
“The Management Company has taken steps to ensure that what happened in this case in terms of failings in its regulatory requirements will not happen again.”
Charles MacCreanor KC for the sub-contractor said the company is a small, family-owned company which now employs up to 20 people.
He told the court that since the fire, the company had engaged safety consultants to improve its safety standards and risk assessments.
“This is not a ‘fly by night’ company. This is a company that is trying to do its best in both work and health and safety. It is saying that ‘one can always do better when it comes to health.
It accepts its failings and this is a blot on its copy book. But it has taken on board all the lessons to be learned from this. Both defendants can count themselves fortunate that there were no fatalities,” added Mr MacCreanor.
Judge Gilpin said he would take time to consider the written and oral submissions and sentence as soon as possible.
Hot works permits are of the utmost importance in ensuring safety in workplaces where activities involving open flames, sparks, or high temperatures are performed. This incident illustrates how things can go badly wrong, if only ‘lip-service’ is paid to existing control measures and that the fire could have been avoided if the hot work permit system was implemented as intended.
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This content has been produced in association with our sister company, Barbour.
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