The Grenfell Tower tragedy has brought the issue of fire safety in buildings to the fore. No one wants to wake up and learn that a product they were involved in manufacturing, specifying or installing may have contributed to such a disaster.
In the case of Grenfell, it was a faulty fridge-freezer that sparked the blaze, but lighting can also play a role in fires. A short-circuited light fitting, for instance, was blamed for triggering a major fire at the Address Downtown hotel in Dubai in 2015.
On the other hand, lighting can save lives: emergency lighting systems are crucial in showing people the way out when burning buildings are evacuated.
A number of concerns have been raised relating to the safety of lighting at Grenfell Tower in the past (although it’s not clear that any of them are linked to last month’s fire), and some survivors of the fire have reportedly said that not all lights were working when they made their way out. As time goes by it will become clearer how products, practices and decisions by various actors contributed to the outcome.
To try and prevent tragedies like this occurring, lighting manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that their products comply with all relevant rules, including fire and electrical safety. But unfortunately, unless something goes wrong, no one much is checking.
To put a product on sale in the UK, all a manufacturer needs to do is self-certify that it meets the relevant European regulations, and slap a CE mark on it. With no third-party certification required and very little policing, there’s nothing to stop dodgy importers putting CE marks on their products too, regardless of whether they actually comply.
This is particularly worrying in the case of emergency lighting. Jonathan Bell, commercial director of emergency lighting specialist Liteplan, says the lighting industry ‘treats emergency lighting as a ‘tick box’ product. As long as what is being installed passes its commissioning test, everyone is happy.’
I find it incredible that the UK, a country that is supposed to lead the world in quality and safety, is falling behind in this critical area.
Bell contrasts this with the UAE, where regulations were tightened following the 2015 Dubai fire, including requirements for emergency lighting in tall buildings. “I find it incredible that the UK, a country that is supposed to lead the world in quality and safety, is falling behind in this critical area.”
When it comes to the fire safety of buildings, the law in the UK is clear on who is ultimately responsible: it’s the building owner or whoever they have delegated responsibility to. Those who break the law face prison sentences and hefty fines.
The LIA’s chief executive Steve Davies says: ‘Premises owners and managers are responsible for ensuring that their emergency lighting systems adequately protect building occupants. This includes the design, specification and maintenance. It is imperative that the initial specification of the products and system design meets the highest standards.’
But others in the supply chain face legal risks too. Lawyer Paul Stone of DLA Piper wrote in Lux recently that lighting designers, engineers and installers ‘may have direct contractual liability to ensure that what they have designed or installed meets… any specification they have signed up to. They will almost certainly have various duties of care to ensure that any work they have undertaken and any design they have developed has been completed in a competent and effective manner.’
Stone warns that if a product isn’t up to the job, lighting professionals ‘may be exposed to liability if they nonetheless specify the use of the product in circumstances when they know or ought reasonably to have foreseen that this might give rise to problems’.
The lesson is that whether you’re a client, supplier or someone in between, cutting corners can come back to haunt you. Everyone in the supply chain has a role in keeping lighting safe and fit for purpose.
Emergency lighting is one of key themes of LuxLive 2017, taking place on Wednesday 15 November and Thursday 16 November 2017 in ExCeL London. At the Escape Zone, a full programme of presentations and demonstrations will take place. Entry is free – pre-register at www.luxlive.co.uk