One year on, and the spectre of Grenfell Tower still looms large on the British psyche.
Only recently has the long and tortuous road to discovering what truly happened on the morning of June 14, 2017, begun. Over the past few weeks, as the Grenfell Fire Inquiry has got under way, we have heard the heart-breaking stories of anger and sorrow expressed so eloquently by family and friends of the 72 people who lost their lives.
And only two days ago did our Prime Minister express regret over her handling of the immediate aftermath.
Still the recriminations and finger pointing continue, and all the while the individuals and communities affected are struggling to come to terms with the fact that their loved ones were taken from them in an appalling disaster that never should have happened – let alone in one of the richest, most developed countries in the world.
But the desperately sad fact is, this is just one more large-scale disaster that lies heavy on the nation’s conscience; it joins a long list including the Aberfan colliery collapse in 1966 (116 children and 28 adults dead), the 1985 Bradford City Valley Parade fire (56 dead and 265 injured), the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge in 1987 (193 dead), and of course the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 96 people died.
Sadly, the list could go on.
In all cases, the stable door has been shut after the horse has bolted, when all of these disasters could, and should, have been prevented with forward thinking and planning.
Assessing the preventability of these tragedies is always the most uncomfortable challenge, and most – even those that seemed wholly novel and unprecedented – on closer examination were shown to have been eminently preventable, even without the wisdom of hindsight.
Yet there is a worrying acceptance that it still takes major loss of life to jolt authorities into taking action to prevent a recurrence.
And still, disasters on this scale continue to happen. Waiting to be wiser after the event nearly always costs lives.
As safety professionals perhaps we failed to prevent the Grenfell fire by being too blinkered, and simply following the rules and standards that, as appears the case, were entirely inadequate.
Where large numbers of members of the public are present, as well as ensuring suitable compliance with specific measures, there is a constant need to think outside the regulatory safety box. What could go wrong? How likely is it? Are existing measures adequate or could/should more be done? Always think what could go wrong and how: “if it can happen it must not matter, and if it matters it must not happen”.
Accidents don’t have to happen, and when they do it is nearly always because we have failed to prevent them. So unless there is a shift in culture and attitudes I fear another Grenfell somewhere in the future – perhaps not a fire, but something equally disastrous.
We’re all responsible for thinking ahead, and people’s lives depend on it.
Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser
Posted: 6/14/2018 2:42:13 PM