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689 Fire safety risks during technical due diligence survey

Report ID: 689

Published: Newsletter No 48 - October 2017

Report Overview

A reporter's firm observed numerous and serious fire safety risks when they were appointed by a client to carry out a technical due diligence survey as part of a building acquisition, meaning the client had not yet agreed the purchase deal for the building.

Report Content

A reporter's firm was appointed by a client to carry out a technical due diligence survey as part of a building acquisition, meaning the client had not yet agreed the purchase deal for the building. During the survey, numerous and serious fire safety risks were observed:

  • Fire exits deliberately barred with wooden or metal poles
  • Fire exits chained shut
  • Missing / damaged / poorly maintained fire extinguishers
  • Blocked fire escape routes full of rubbish
  • High volumes of flammable waste lying around (large quantities of cardboard containers, paper wrapping etc.)
  • Sprinkler system capped off at the mains valves
  • Fire alarm system in error mode

It was obvious that neither 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 they would notify the local fire authority that a fire safety visit was urgently required to enforce a fire risk assessment, if alternative action and instructions were not proposed by the client by the end of the day. 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 aspect. Reporting the matter to the authority would directly contradict the instruction of a client and result in breach of contract to said client. The client has also asked that the matter is not referred to in the due diligence report. Often technical due diligence surveys pull up 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, had they not ensured that their client had taken appropriate action?

Comments

The defects discovered were dangerous and illegal. It would be un-ethical 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, and direct contact with the authorities by the Engineer may be the only way to achieve this. 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, 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. Before deciding how to act it would be prudent for the Engineer to seek legal advice, but even if there is a contractual risk the Engineer might decide to apprise the Client that, for the greater good, the Engineer would be notifying potential dangers to life to those 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 to protect worker/public safety.


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