The RAAC concrete crisis: An overview and guidance for companies
In recent weeks, the United Kingdom has been grappling with a significant infrastructure concern – the use of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in many public buildings built between the 1950s and 1990s.
Over 100 schools across the country have closed, due to uncertainty about the integrity of the buildings. A select number of hospitals and courts have also been confirmed to be affected by the problem.
Failure of RAAC planks can lead to a roof collapse, posing a significant threat to anyone within the building at the time, which has naturally raised concerns. And for every educational setting or public structure already fully or partially closed, there are hundreds more yet to confirm if they contain RAAC.
This is leading to similar questions being asked about commercial buildings. With RAAC being a popular building material in the 1960s and 1970s, organizations are now considering the stability of their own buildings, and if they need to take action to protect employees from harm.
What is RAAC and why is it a concern?
RAAC is a lightweight concrete-like material, typically used for the roofing structure of single-storey, low-cost buildings. Widely used across Europe following the second world war, it has been found that this material is prone weakness or, at worst, failure as it ages.
It's naturally porous – so is often covered with waterproofing, but this then makes it difficult to assess firstly, whether a building contains RAAC and secondly, if it is structurally sound.
Experts predict this ripple effect will likely develop into a full, ferocious wave. The concerns and uncertainties revolving around RAAC are clearly not limited to the education sector or indeed the United Kingdom alone.
Safety is without doubt the first concern, but what of the commercial impacts? Let's examine these implications in detail.
Managing risks and ensuring safety
One of the key criticisms currently dominating the news and political agenda, is that concerns regarding the structural integrity of RAAC first emerged in the late 1990s. Investigations were triggered by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a UK-based research organization specializing in construction and the built environment. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) echoed this warning in a 2001 report, noting potential structural failures in RAAC buildings.
Yet two decades have passed before serious action has been taken, prompting commentators to describe it as 'a disaster waiting to happen'. This is clearly unacceptable to all responsible organizations wanting to protect its employees, customers and operations.
The RAAC crisis serves as a reminder of the importance of identifying problems early and being proactive when it comes to risk management. To ensure the safety of infrastructure, it’s imperative to conduct regular checks and maintenance to address any potential issues.
Here are 6 recommended steps:
- Begin by identifying and documenting all properties in your asset portfolio. This inventory can be compiled with the help of historical construction records or professional assessments.
- Once a list of potential RAAC buildings is in place, these buildings should be prioritized based on factors such as their age, the extent of RAAC usage, and their occupancy levels. The buildings that pose the highest risk should be addressed first.
- Next, the risk management plan should include regular inspections and assessments of these buildings by certified professionals. These inspections will help companies monitor the condition of RAAC over time and identify any early signs of deterioration or structural weakness.
- The risk management plan should also encompass contingency measures. These should involve evacuation procedures and temporary relocation strategies. It may be beneficial to explore insurance options pertaining to RAAC-related liabilities. This could help mitigate potential financial risks associated with a RAAC incident.
- Finally, it is essential that companies continue a culture of transparency and responsibility when dealing with RAAC issues. The safety of people MUST be the top priority.
- It is here where the value of your risk and safety management teams will be fully realised. Regular updates on the status of RAAC buildings and any precautionary measures being taken should be communicated top to bottom, to enable the Board to make the right decisions, and for colleagues to know that their wellbeing will not be compromised.
Safety first: Steps companies should take
If your company suspects that RAAC planks have been used in the construction of your building, immediate action should be taken:
- Assess the situation: Engage a professional structural engineer or a specialist in RAAC to assess your building. They will be able to confirm whether RAAC has been used and evaluate the current state of the material. Ensure the findings are properly recorded in your EHS and risk systems.
- Ensure safety: If RAAC is present and shows signs of degradation, consider vacating the building until further measures can be taken. The safety of your employees should always be the top priority.
- Plan remedial action: This could range from replacing the RAAC planks to reinforcing them, depending on the severity of the situation.
- Implement business continuity plans: If evacuation is required, activate your company's plan to minimize disruption. This may include remote work arrangements, temporary relocation, or reallocating resources and responsibilities among operational sites. Having an established and regularly updated plan is crucial for swift and efficient response to unexpected situations.
- Communicate transparently: Keep all stakeholders informed about the situation and the steps you are taking. Transparency is key.
Providing clarity and confidence
The RAAC crisis is a wake-up call to any responsible business prioritizing the safety and well-being of those who use their buildings.
Cultivating a robust safety and risk culture within a business is not just an ethical imperative, it's a strategic necessity. It fosters trust among employees, stakeholders, and the community at large, demonstrating that the business values human life above all else.
Even if your company isn't directly affected by RAAC, the news may prompt you to reflect on your current safety management systems. Could you be doing more to protect your workforce to mitigate risk? A culture of safety and incident reporting needs to be embedded throughout your organization, along with a framework for collecting accurate and timely data to manage hazards and risks in a proactive manner.
Meticulous risk management practices help to avert potential crises, saving companies significant time and resources in the long run. This enhances brand reputation and can even present a competitive advantage, as businesses that prioritize safety and effectively manage risks tend to attract top talent and instil confidence in investors.
A strong safety and risk culture is not only a safeguard against potential disasters, but an investment in sustainable success.
Some other resources that you may find useful include:
- What is a risk management strategy?
- Building Better EHS Dashboard Webinar
- Risk reporting best practices