TEN WORKERS escaped a fire at 68 Independence Square that began in D’Bocas restaurant by climbing over the building’s fencing to an adjoining multi-storey car park operated by Nicholas Court. They could not escape through the designated fire exit door for the building because it was found securely locked, on the outside, by fire officers when they arrived to bring the blaze under control.
According to fire officials, the route to the fire exit was partially blocked by boxes as the stairwell was being used as a storage area and the escape door, a metal security construction, was firmly locked at two points. A manager at the building told Newsday that the fire escape was locked to stop anyone from breaking into the building using that entrance.
We do not know who is directly responsible, but this flagrant disregard for the occupational safety and health laws of the country cannot be readily dismissed. The failures in this incident are many. The confusion that followed the fire suggests there was no safety steward for the building. There are multiple businesses operating in the building, but there seemed to be little clarity about the procedures to be followed in the event of a fire.
While a steward is not a legal requirement for businesses with less than 25 employees, a building with several businesses which may be operating a shift system as well as offering services and products to the public should, sensibly, be operating with a greater level of organisation governing its response to danger.
Gym instructor Angela London said that she had warned building authorities about the issues with the fire escape in 2018 when there was another incident, but nothing was done.
Fire hazards are a reality in the popular business buildings in Port-of-Spain and particularly so along Independence Square and the streets which feed into it, all of which benefit from heavy foot traffic. Building owners turn every available inch of space to commercial use, but in doing so they must also provide proper safety exit routes and clear instructions to guide the response to danger.
New City Mall on Independence Square was gutted by fire in August 2018, costing thousands of dollars in losses. Just four months later, a fire gutted four businesses at a drag mall on lower Henry Street.
Anyone working at a business can file a stakeholder request for an inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Agency and building owners are required to have their premises inspected by the agency before renting or leasing, but it’s clear that the agency should step up spot checks of business buildings in densely tenanted areas to ensure greater compliance with OSH regulations.