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CROSS Safety Report

Due diligence survey uncovers fire safety risks

Report ID: 689 Published: 1 October 2017 Region: CROSS-UK

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Overview

A reporter observed serious fire safety issues while carrying out a technical due diligence survey being undertaken as part of a building acquisition.

The report suggests routes to deal with ethical issues involving safety.

Key Learning Outcomes

For design engineers and surveyors:

  • Unforeseen hazards are often identified by professionals during the course of their work

  • Where findings reveal a danger to people’s safety, professionals are expected to act ethically and take appropriate action to help make a situation safe

  • While carrying out surveys for clients, be aware of the contractual obligations in place. It may be prudent to seek legal advice if you feel your actions may be in breach of the contract.

  • Read and follow the principles or ethical codes for professional bodies, which are often based on the principles set out by the Royal Academy of Engineering

For building owners and managers:

  • Planned inspections and maintenance is necessary to keep a building safe and identify any safety issues that may need to be addressed

  • Consider the findings and extent of any issues identified and assess if there is an increase in risk, including how those findings may affect other fire safety provisions.

  • Serious deficiencies may need to be brought to the attention of the regulator and/or the fire and rescue service

Full Report

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Our secure and confidential safety reporting system gives professionals the opportunity to share their experiences to help others. If you would like to know more, please visit the reporting to CROSS-UK page.

A reporter's firm was appointed by a client to carry out a technical due diligence survey as part of a building acquisition. The client had not yet agreed the purchase deal for the building.

During the survey, numerous and serious fire safety risks were observed:

  • Some fire exits were deliberately barred with wooden or metal poles

  • Some fire exits were chained shut

  • There were missing fire extinguishers. Others were damaged and poorly maintained.

  • There were blocked fire escape routes full of rubbish

  • High volumes of flammable waste were lying around (large quantities of cardboard containers, paper wrapping etc.)

  • The sprinkler system was capped off at the mains valves

  • The fire alarm system was in error mode

Fire risk assessments

It was obvious that the current owner, nor the short-term tenant, had carried out a fire risk assessment for the property. This was reported to the client the day after the survey.

The reporter informed the client that if alternative action and instructions were not proposed by the client by the end of the day, they would notify the local fire authority.  It would be highlighted that a fire safety visit was urgently required to enforce a fire risk assessment.

The reporter informed the client that if alternative action and instructions were not proposed by the client by the end of the day, they would notify the local fire authority. It would be highlighted that a fire safety visit was urgently required to enforce a fire risk assessment

The client specifically stated that the authorities should not be notified as this could put the purchase deal in jeopardy. They seemed unconcerned about the obvious safety risks.

Is reporting the matter a breach of contract?

Reporting the matter to the authority would directly contradict the instruction of a client and result in a breach of contract with them. The client had also asked that the matter was not referred to in the due diligence report.

Technical due diligence surveys consistently raise serious health and safety issues such as asbestos, legionella, fire, stability and more. However, there is often no action taken by the client or current building owner, except to seek a lower price in any deal.

How would this reflect on the reporting engineer if an incident were to occur in the future, and they had not ensured that their client had taken the appropriate action?

Expert Panel Comments

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Expert Panels comment on the reports we receive. They use their experience to help you understand what can be learned from the reports. If you would like to know more, please visit the CROSS-UK Expert Panels page.

The defects discovered appeared to the reporter to be dangerous and potentially illegal.

It would be unethical and irresponsible not to report them, but two questions arise:

  1. Is the duty of care adequately satisfied by reporting only to the client?
  2. Do the professional responsibilities of an engineer take precedence over the instructions of the client?

If the issues are formally reported to the client then it must be made absolutely clear that it is then the client’s responsibility to alert the relevant bodies in a timely manner. In this case, the client apparently did not want to know.

However, if the dangers are real and imminent, then the ultimate responsibility is to the safety of those affected. The direct contact with the authorities by the engineer may be the only way to achieve this.

Codes of conduct

To help in dealing with such issues, professional bodies have codes of conduct for their members and statements of ethical principles. Usually these are based on the principles set out by the Royal Academy of Engineering,  last updated in July 2017. 

The Institution of Structural Engineers’ Code of Conduct  includes the statement ‘have regard to the public interest as well as the interests of all those affected by their professional activities.’

It also however says that members should not ‘disclose the contents of a report to third parties, without the client’s express permission’. These principles can appear to conflict with one another.

Contractual risk and legal advice

Before deciding how to act, it would be prudent for the engineer to seek legal advice.  Even if there is a contractual risk, the engineer might decide to inform the client that, for the greater good, they would be notifying the potential risk to life to authorities who could act.

Before deciding how to act, it would be prudent for the engineer to seek legal advice. Even if there is a contractual risk, the engineer might decide to inform the client that, for the greater good, they would be notifying the potential risk to life to authorities who could act

It is to be hoped that in the event of a dispute the courts would protect the reporter's firm if they were to act in a manner that protected worker and public safety.

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