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Companies making flammable products could “sneak” extra fire-resisting materials into cladding rigs to beat fire tests without inspectors knowing, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has heard.
Security at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) could be “circumvented” so fire assessors could not be sure of the “precise make-up and composition” of cladding systems being tested, the inquiry heard on Tuesday.
Phil Clark, the organisation’s former cladding test chief supervisor, told the hearing “the reliance very much was on the honesty of the client”, adding that “someone going out of their way to deceive” could cheat the system.
Mr Clark was questioned about a key fire safety test passed by insulation makers Celotex in May 2014 after a fire test failure in January.
The inquiry has already heard Celotex employees manipulated the second test to secure a pass for the firm’s combustible Rs5000 insulation for use on high-rise buildings, including by falsifying technical drawings and failing to declare fire-resisting magnesium oxide boards had been included in the test.
Celotex ordered the magnesium oxide to be delivered directly to the BRE but it was not logged officially, the inquiry heard.
Inquiry counsel Richard Millett QC asked if there was a “system in place for ensuring every single piece of material that crossed the BRE threshold destined for a test was documented” and why the magnesium oxide was not on the BRE’s test file.
Mr Clark said items were not always declared through a “goods-in” system and would sometimes be delivered directly to the organisation’s “burn hall”.
He said: “Security guards would circumvent the system sometimes, people being people they would oblige as opposed to annoying the lorry driver.”
Mr Millett asked: “Does that mean it was possible for a test sponsor to sneak a piece of kit past the BRE and get it on to a rig without the BRE knowing?”
Mr Clark said: “Yes, yes we weren’t there all the time, some of these systems could take a week, week and a half … to complete.
“We weren’t there 24/7, didn’t have a security guard on the door so yes you’re right they could have .. if you have got somebody who is going out of their way to deceive then there was a possibility they could do that if that was their intention.”
Mr Millett said: “It was possible for clients to sneak material past the guards to get it on to the rig without you knowing.”
Mr Clark said: “Ultimately it’s to the client to prepare the test rig, we’re not there to police necessarily to the nth degree of what they’re doing there. There’s a large element of trust in everything we do.”
Environmental chemistry graduate Mr Clark, who ran the burn hall between 2004 and 2017, said the BRE would get a “general overview of what was being built” but said checks would not amount to a “fine-toothed comb”.
Asked by Mr Millet to explain how he “missed the presence” of the magnesium oxide, Mr Clarke said “No I can’t”.
He said: “This is what has been playing in my mind for a long time.
“To this day I still can’t think why I missed it. I can’t account for it at all.”
He rejected suggestions he was aware of its presence, as previously alleged to the inquiry by Celotex’s former assistant product manager Jonathan Roper.
Celotex employees added 6mm magnesium oxide boards to a cladding test rig made up of 12mm fibre cement panels for the second test.
The inquiry has heard 8mm fibre cement panels were added over the magnesium oxide to “conceal” its presence, making the whole system almost flush – but for the 2mm difference.
Asked why he did not check to make sure the facade boards were all the same thickness, Mr Clark said: “I’m not certain why.
“I can’t answer that question.
“It was an error on my part.
“Had I known it I would have stopped the test.”
Mr Roper has told the inquiry his superiors at Celotex ordered the removal of any mention of the magnesium oxide in marketing literature and admitted the omission was a “fraud on the market”.
Celotex, part of the French multinational Saint-Gobain group, withdrew the test in 2018.
It has said in a statement to the inquiry: “In the course of investigations carried out by Celotex after the Grenfell Tower fire, certain issues emerged concerning the testing, certification and marketing of Celotex’s products … These matters involved unacceptable conduct on the part of a number of employees.
“They should not have happened and Celotex has taken concerted steps to ensure that no such issues reoccur.”
The inquiry is examining how Grenfell Tower came to be coated in flammable materials which contributed to the spread of flames which shot up the tower in June 2017, killing 72 people.
The inquiry continues on Wednesday with evidence from the BRE’s Stephen Howard.