Gordon Tranter examines the significant health and safety risks related to vacant premises; as well as what actions are then required.

With 900,000 empty homes and the vacancy rate for retail premises in the top 650 British town and city centres at 14.1%, managing empty buildings is an important topic. For vacant properties, there is not only loss of income, empty rates, and compliance with insurance stipulations, but also a range of risks that must be managed.

The importance of managing the risks

An empty property is a vulnerable property with many potential hazards that can make the building unsafe for others and reduce its value. Badly managed vacant premises can damage the reputation of property owners and put relations with neighbours under strain. A high number of vacant properties in one area can bring security concerns for neighbouring occupants and eventually lead to the area’s decline.

The duty of care

Owners and managers of vacant property have a “duty of care” to anyone entering the building, whether they have been invited into the premises or not. If anyone on site sustains an injury, the company responsible for the building could be held liable for it. This would be the case if estate agents, surveyors, potential buyers, members of the emergency services, children using the site as a playground or even trespassers, were injured. Broken walls, piles of rubble, protruding nails, falling objects and live wiring are all potential causes of such incidents. For example, a trespasser who fell through the roof of an empty building, which was poorly maintained, successfully sued for £567,000. The risk of potential liability should be reduced by conducting reviews of the condition of the property to ensure such dangerous conditions do not exist.

Insurance

A rise in the number of empty properties and the associated risks due to a rise in crimes, including metal theft, squatting, arson, and vandalism, has driven insurance companies to consider vacant properties as high risk.

The property’s insurers should be informed as soon as the premises become vacant. Failure to do this can constitute a breach of the “change of occupancy clause” with the risk of the premises probably not being covered in the event of damage. Check the insurance policy to ensure that its terms are being complied with. If the organisation cannot show that sufficient precautions are being taken, the premiums for long-term vacant properties are likely to be high.

The risk assessment

An essential first step to keeping empty premises secure is the risk assessment. This should identify the risks and help determine the precautions required. Each property is different and the risks will depend on its location and previous use. Among the many and varied risks that need to be considered are:

  • intruders — including vandals, arsonists, graffiti artists, those holding and attending illegal raves, thieves, drug addicts, squatters and fly tippers, all of whom can cause damage and lead to large financial losses

  • fire

  • weather damage — for example burst pipes in winter

  • damage caused by services, for example fire ignited by the electrical supply

  • biological agents — such as vermin infestations, for example, rats, mice, cockroaches or fleas; animal excreta; and discarded syringes

  • the condition of the premises and the location

  • health and safety risks to those who need to enter the premises.

A key function of the risk assessment is to identify the steps required to protect the premises.

Security

The security of a vacant building is paramount. Steps need to be taken to prevent:

  • damage caused by unauthorised entry to the premises by intruders

  • the theft of equipment, fixtures, and fittings (particularly metal fittings), which can also be accompanied by serious damage brought about by ripping piping, etc out of the building

  • accidentally or deliberately started fires

  • the dumping of rubbish by fly tippers.

A risk assessment should be carried out before security measures are installed. The assessment should take into account the layout of the site and its vulnerabilities, the nature and value of the buildings and their contents, and also the location of the site, the area’s crime profile and how intruders might gain access. This should include consideration of the:

  • condition of the property

  • state of the existing security measures

  • current fire-detection measures

  • state of the existing perimeter protection

  • value of the property (ie is it of high value and is there any stock left?).

The assessment should identify the security required. As a basic necessity, this should include good physical security to doors and windows, and in some cases, areas prone to vandalism may require boarding. There will also be a requirement for an alarm system with an adequate response to any activation by secure, monitored signalling to an alarm-receiving centre. Modern, wireless alarm systems are capable of capturing images of alarm activations, which are then transmitted to a monitoring station where operatives verify the reason for the alarm activation and then alert a key holder, the emergency services, or the local response team to attend the premises. Other protective measures include electronic security systems, manned guards, dog patrols, CCTV and regular inspections of the premises.

The perimeter of the site must be protected, for instance by using temporary fencing, bollards, anti-climb paint and barbed wire. However, the use of barbed/razor wire and broken glass to stop intruders could make the company liable to civil action because of the duty of care to ensure that visitors, including trespassers, are reasonably safe.

Security is not just restricted to physical barriers and surveillance; attention should also be paid to the appearance of the unoccupied property so that would-be criminals do not see it as an attractive target. The building should look “cared for” and its exterior and surroundings should be kept clean and tidy. This should involve carrying out routine inspections with any waste dumped outside; any graffiti or fly posters cleaned up quickly; and any broken windows mended. Post should be stopped so that it does not pile up behind a see-through front door.

Informing other parties

When a building becomes vacant, the police and fire services should be informed and given the details of all key holders (if they keep key-holder details). If applicable, the local authorities should also be informed.

The co-operation of neighbours in adjacent buildings can be very useful in reporting unauthorised entry. Neighbours should be informed of when contractors are expected and asked to alert the company or the police if they see anyone around the property acting suspiciously. Often theft takes place “right under the noses” of neighbours who mistakenly assume they are contractors.

Fire

Aviva reports that there are currently around 9000 fires per year occurring in empty buildings. Consequently, every possible step to minimise fire risks should be taken. The risk assessment should identify any readily ignitable combustible material, such as waste and fixtures (ie furniture and floor coverings) that should be removed. Any fuel tanks should be drained and gas supplies isolated.

As arson is responsible for more than half of the known causes of fire damage in commercial and industrial property, it is essential to prevent potential arsonists, and others who may inadvertently start a fire, from gaining access to the building. The need for the letter-box to be securely closed is frequently forgotten. Neglecting this may give potential arsonists a way to set the building on fire.

The local fire service should be informed when a building becomes empty and, if it is a large commercial building, the information should include details on access to the building, the location of fire water supplies and potential hazards.

Damage from services and weather

Turning off the water supply and draining down heating systems is essential to prevent flooding caused by frozen pipes, and vandalism or damage caused by thieves removing metal piping. Leaks and damp penetration can also occur in properties that remain vacant for some time, especially if they are not regularly inspected. Electricity and gas supplies should also be turned off at the mains unless required for the heating or the alarm and detection systems.

Wildlife

Trees and plants can cause problems for empty buildings. There is a need to keep gutters and gullies clear of leaves and to monitor trees and climbing plants to keep them under control. Leaves in gutters and gullies should be regularly monitored and removed when necessary.

Empty buildings can provide a habitat for various animals, birds and insects, which can be damaging to the building and a risk to human health. Layers of bird droppings are a toxic hazard and should be removed by a specialist contractor.

Conclusion

This article has considered the control of the risks present in empty premises; the need to keep the premises clean and ready to use or let should also not be overlooked.

Last reviewed 17 December 2013