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Speaking for the Sector - March 2021

01 March 2021

In the wake of evidence recently brought forward at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Dennis Davis examines the current product assurance process pertaining in the construction sector and outlines precisely why any weak links which break the thread of compliance and accountability must now be consigned to the built environment’s history books

ONE OF the more disturbing fire safety-related failures we learned about late last year emanated from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Evidence was revealed (and examined) relating directly to products used for this building. Many may have thought a robust enough arrangement was already in place for construction-related product approvals, from testing right through to the design specification stages and, ultimately, on to installation. Alas, this doesn’t appear to be the case in terms of what we’ve now learned.

Viewed in the round by everyone and anyone responsible in this area, and especially so if directly involved in any part of the product process itself across the construction sector, these are somewhat astounding revelations. Put simply, assurance of product compliance is essential for clients and building users in order to ensure devastating impacts on the critical safety of occupiers and firefighters alike are avoided.

On that basis, the Fire Sector Federation welcomes the Government moving decisively to establish a national construction products regulator. Working through the Office for Product Safety and Standards and backed by a new tranche of funding, the regulator will have enforcement powers that allow it to conduct its own product tests, remove any product that presents a significant safety risk from the market and prosecute those proven to have flouted the rules on product safety. Linked into this initiative is an independent review of testing regimes to date. Taken together, these actions send a clear message.

Flawed process

Reflecting on what has transpired to date, some industry practitioners might well assume that the whole product assurance process is presently flawed, or at least ineffectively managed. Equally so, they could be forgiven for assuming the anticipated safety safeguards are compromised by a low performing regime. An understandable consequence, perhaps, of such an abject and total awakening experienced by all, informed professional or layman alike.

On learning of these stark, breathtaking, depressing and distressing details, however, we do need to recognise the sheer scale of the construction industry and, in turn, all those individuals within working competently and responsibly to ensure that buildings are absolutely safe for occupation and use. What has in fact been highlighted is the importance of having a complete product assurance cycle and, while in no way diminishing the role of effective enforcement, the need remains to define areas for possible improvement.

Of course, none of this is really what you might term ‘new thinking’. Materials have long been subject to performance regimes and declarations of conformity. The UK’s recent departure from the European Union after the transitional period, for example, made all existing harmonised European standards UK ‘designated standards’ with the focused attention very squarely on changes from CE to UK Conformity Assessed (UKCA) marking. That change shines the spotlight on traceability, which starts with manufacturers’ samples and laboratory test certificates for products that then go on – subsequent to being imported, perhaps – to be distributed, installed and used.

From the Fire Sector Federation’s perspective, there’s a very strong link within this product cycle to third party assurance. The latter is already a core Federation policy. What underpins our existing policy is having independent oversight to achieve quality alongside performance.

When we suggest, as we always do, that construction products need similar attention, we’re asking to extend Best Practice beyond certification of compliance to meet a standard (or, if you prefer, conformity assessment) towards the broader goal of establishing a system designed to absolutely ensure construction products are fully fit for purpose.

Raising integrity

Approached in this way, the intent becomes focused on raising the integrity of the whole product cycle and ensuring performance matches design with products manufactured and appropriately tested for their intended use(s).

Integrity to help confirm – through testing, marking, traceability and application – that the correct product and the manner in which it’s installed on-site, and subsequently signed-off, is the right product used in the right way for the right purpose. A pretty straightforward philosophy and an eminently achievable goal.

How will we set about this task? Well, we’ve already kick-started the process by establishing a Working Group and opening dialogue among our diverse professionally informed membership. We aim to look at the product cycle, searching out those weak links which break the thread of compliance and accountability such that we can then help ensure the delivery of compliance and quality.

Central to our view is the proposition that a good multi-layered control system would provide ample opportunities to identify conflicts and poor compliance so as to prevent failures. Connected to insights of how products behave in when in use, including the confidential reporting of near misses and research into performance over time, we match expectation to performance.

We hope to progress this key task during 2021. Given recent announcements, it would appear the fire sector and Government are in step with our aims.

Dennis Davis is Executive Officer at the Fire Sector Federation (www.firesectorfederation.co.uk)