Fire prevention methods have come a long way in the past century.
We now have extensive fire legislation and guidance to help keep employees safe in their place of work, and these regulations are continually reviewed and updated according to data collected by the Fire Services. But these improvements have not come easily; our fire safety legislation has been driven by some of the worst disasters in UK history.
It is by analysing these cases - and identifying what went wrong - that we have been able to learn from our mistakes and take essential measures to prevent history repeating itself.
Let’s now look at some of the worst commercial fires in UK history, assess what caused them, and outline how they could have been prevented.
Booth’s Clothing Factory Fire (1941)
We all know smoking is hazardous to your health, but it also poses an enormous fire risk. Over a third of fire deaths in both commercial and domestic properties occur due to smoking, making it one of the leading causes of fire-related fatalities.
The Booth’s Clothing Factory fire of 1941 was caused by a lit pipe that was left in a jacket pocket over a long shift. The fire quickly spread, destroying the building and taking the lives of 49 of the 150 factory workers.
However, the victims may have been able to survive if the building had been equipped with fire escapes; tragically, they were unable to evacuate the building due to the five-storey structure. The only escape routes were two narrow staircases, which quickly became flooded with desperate people.
The victims were buried in a mass grave at Edgerton Cemetery and were commended for their support for the war effort - but this was an entirely avoidable tragedy that should not have happened, as the Booth’s Clothing Factory Fire could have been easily prevented by using the legislation, policies, and procedures that we have in place today.
Firstly, the ban on smoking in public spaces would have prevented the fire from breaking out in the first place.
Secondly, all businesses with over sixty workers are now required to install at least two fire escapes; this would have enabled the Booth’s Clothing Factory workers to exit the building safely.
Plus, by enacting a comprehensive fire exit strategy, Booth’s Clothing could have also reduced the amount of traffic on the staircases, preventing the risk of trampling and enabling staff to leave in a safe and orderly manner.
The Summerland Fire Disaster (1973)
If you’re still not convinced that your cigarette habit could cause a life-threatening fire, think again.
Summerland was a leisure centre based on the Isle of Man that boasted a reputation as the most innovative leisure centre in the world, having a capacity of up to 10,000 people.
It was a dream for the holidaymakers of the 1970s, offering an indoor swimming pool, saunas, a children's theatre, and an underground disco – all of which meant that every year thousands of tourists were drawn to the facilities to enjoy themselves in the summer sun.
Unfortunately for the 3,000 people who were in the building on the evening of August 2nd 1973, a group of teenage boys had gathered in an outdoor kiosk to smoke a cigarette. They then discarded the match they used to light their cigarettes, and this quickly set the kiosk ablaze.
As the structure of the kiosk weakened in the flames, it collapsed into the exterior of the building, and in turn set fire to the highly flammable acrylic sheeting, known as ‘Oroglass’.
Tragically, the fire doors were locked at the time, resulting in a crush at the main doors as the visitors rushed to exit the building. Another significant factor behind the fatalities was the poor ventilation of the centre, which caused many people to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.
To make matters worse, incredibly, the centre did not call the fire services, who were instead alerted over 20 minutes after the fire’s outbreak by a taxi driver and the captain of a passing ship.
The Summerland Fire Disaster was a toxic combination of poor practices and dangerously flammable building materials. It could have been prevented by banning smoking on the premises, ensuring that fire doors were left open, and using non-flammable building materials.
Instead, 50 people were sadly killed, and a further 80 seriously injured.
Bradford City FC Stadium Fire (1985)
The Bradford City FC Stadium Fire was another disaster caused, yet again, by cigarette smoking.
A football fan had discarded his cigarette, but it fell between the floorboards of the stadium onto a pile of waste, igniting it. The wooden stand became overwhelmed by flames in just under four minutes, with the blaze then spreading to the roof, causing radiated heat to set fire to the clothing of the people in the stand.
The stadium had become completely engulfed in flames - and the football fans were trapped inside. Many people attempted to exit the stadium through the turnstiles, but these were locked, resulting in a crush. As a consequence, many of those who attempted to leave through the locked turnstiles were killed or seriously injured.
The Bradford City FC Stadium Fire could have been prevented by banning smoking on the grounds and following fire safety procedures.
In an inquiry, it was found that the stadium management team had been warned on multiple occasions about the risk of allowing rubbish to build up beneath the stand, but had paid no heed to the warnings.
As a result of the Bradford City FC Stadium Fire, cigarette smoking was prohibited on sports grounds with pre-existing wooden stands, and the construction of new wooden sports stands was banned.
Piper Alpha (1988)
Piper Alpha was an oil rig based in the North Sea, 120 miles Northeast of Aberdeen.
Piper Alpha had a proud reputation for being highly efficient, but on July 6th 1988, the gas alarms activated. Condensate B and the first-stage gas compressors had tripped, resulting in a large flare. Just fifteen minutes later, an explosion erupted throughout the facility, knocking sleeping rig workers to the floor from their beds.
But unfortunately, the story does not end there.
The initial explosion in the gas compressor module caused a condensate line to rupture in the oil separation module, triggering a secondary explosion and causing a fireball to be released into the sky. The disaster was further fuelled by numerous gas leaks from nearby gas lines, which led to additional explosions and fires ripping through the facility.
These explosions and fires caused the structure of the platform to weaken, prompting it to collapse. As a result, the main accommodation building for the workers fell into the sea, killing 81 men.
Only 61 of the 221 workers survived the incident and it took over three weeks for the fire to be extinguished.
The causes of the disaster were not so clear-cut.
The Cullen Inquiry found that the pressure relief valve had been removed for maintenance, and an untested blind flange had been fitted instead. The workers had also been unable to activate the fire protection system due to the dense smoke and flames, so consequently did not dispense the water required to cool the structure.
In addition, due to lackadaisical management and poor communication - which relied heavily on informal practices where essential paperwork was often not filled out properly – combined with the slack daily practices of the facility, the operators were unaware that the condensate injection pump A and the pressure release valve for pump A had been removed for maintenance.
In conclusion, the Piper Alpha disaster was an unfortunate consequence of multiple failures to follow safety policies and procedures, combined with overall poor site management.
Furthermore, it could easily have been prevented by ensuring that effective communication and comprehensive handovers were practiced throughout the rig when one shift ended and another began.
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