By
Mike Smith
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28 June, 2017

Nothing could prepare me for the visceral, emotional impact of seeing the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower in West London, where 79 people are known to have died: incinerated or choked to death with toxic fumes.

A woman I spoke to, among the groups of people on the streets outside, said she had been drafted in from the health and safety department of the neighbouring borough. She was sure the number of fatalities would prove to be well over 100. One man said he had come from Uxbridge, at the very end of the Piccadilly tube line to see for himself. Another man said that three people who died were from the company where he worked, though he didn't know them personally.

The scene is heart-wrenching: the charred building itself which acts as a grim, black grave; the knots of people gathered on the streets, talking in subdued tones; the emotional messages of loss of loved ones and the photos pinned up of those still unaccounted for; the huge number of flowers and prayers outside the nearby Methodist Church; and the messages of anger that such a tragedy could have happened to so many men, women and children, high-rise residents from poor families.

The fire that gutted the tower block is believed to have started when a faulty fridge freezer exploded in one apartment. It would never have spread to engulf the whole building if it hadn't been for the inferior, flammable outside cladding which was recently installed to improve the look of the building, at the cost of several million pounds: a cladding of a type that is banned in America and elsewhere, yet was supplied by a USA-based company. A safer fire-resistant cladding could have been used at little extra cost. Sprinklers were not installed in each apartment. Residents were fatally told to stay inside their apartments instead of evacuating the building. Yet the local borough council of Kensington was proud of the fact that it ran a huge budget surplus. At what shameful cost to people's lives?

At the very least this was a tragedy of negligence, after repeated warnings following earlier high-rise tower block fires in London. At the worst it was manslaughter, as cost-cutting measures compromised on safety, in the interests of corporate profits that, it seems, amounted to profiteering. Such corruption of corporate values flies in the face of what Professor Roger Steare of Cass Business School in the City of London calls the 'duty of care'. The duty of care, he says, should be a first priority of all businesses. Instead, it seems that a culture of 'what we can get away with' prevailed.

Compromise and corruption versus the duty of care. We have seen it before, when the Rana Plaza building in Dacca, Bangladesh, collapsed four years ago, killing over 1,100 garment workers, after two extra floors were illegally added to the building. Now, in the UK, 600 high-rise tower blocks all over the country are being checked for fire safety. So far the first 95 of them, as I write, have ALL failed fire safety tests. Some reports suggest that the fire-safety standards have changed, tightened up, since the original installations. But cost-cutting and compromise prevailed: a culture of 'what we can get away with' versus a culture of care. It is shaming that such practices exist in this day and age. But they do. And, as is so often the case when it comes to corruption and compromise, a devastating price is paid when profit, and a lack of investment, comes before a culture of care for people. The innocent pay the highest price with their lives.

Michael Smith is Head of Business Programmes at Initiatives of Change and author of the book 'Great Company'. Initiatives of Change advocates conscience-based decision-making, 'intuitive intelligence' and a leadership culture based on moral and ethical values.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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