Y2015-04 Fire in accommodation for foreign workers in Tuusula on 29 November 2015
A fire broke out in a wooden building used as accommodation for foreign workers some time after 9 pm on the evening of Sunday 29 November 2015. There were 16 Estonian and Bulgarian residents in the building, 15 of whom had evacuated the building via the doors and windows by the time the rescue services arrived. One person was injured and was therefore taken to hospital by ambulance.
The workers who had evacuated the building thought that everyone had managed to get out. The police and rescue services trusted this information and did not smoke dive into the building. The fire was extinguished and the debris was cleared away. Four days later, the employer of one of the residents of the building notified the police that the employee had gone missing. The police found the employee dead among the ruins of the burned-down building.
The building had originally been built as a detached house, but afterwards served as a semi-detached house and then as a care home for disable people. It ceased serving as a care home in 2013 and the electrical part of the renovation under way at the time was left unfinished. For example, an earth electrode was not installed. In the autumn of 2015, a construction company rented the building as accommodation for foreign temporary workers in the construction sector. The building's accommodation capacity was increased by e.g. building partition walls, and kitchen and toilet facilities. Electrical work was done on a D-I-Y basis and extension cords were used to provide electricity for electric plates, refrigerators, microwave ovens and other devices.
The fire probably started in the downstairs sauna area, as the result of an electrical fault. The probability of an electrical fault occurring in the building had been increased by the lack of earthing, the increased electrical load, overly large fuses being used with respect to the wiring, and inadequately performed electrical installations. The building owner and the tenant did not take responsibility for the safety of the building. Because the building inspection authority was unaware that the purpose of the building had changed and it would be used as accommodation, the rescue services did not perform fire inspections of the kind required.
In Finland, foreign temporary labour is used in the berry picking and construction sectors in particular. There is a great need for affordable accommodation for people working in low-pay sectors. Premises that are in poor condition or even unsuitable may be used as accommodation and can often be overcrowded, endangering the safety of residents. The risks also increase and safety decreases if the residents are not trained in housing safety, accident prevention or how to act in an emergency.
If a change in the use of a building is not notified, the building inspection authority will not be aware of the true purpose for which the building is being used. The building inspection authority does not actively seek to investigate the use of buildings and information does not always flow between the authorities. A study has revealed cases where the fire inspector or police had noted that the use of a building had been changed to living quarters, but had not informed the building inspection authority of this.
Housing safety is defined in the fire safety regulations. In addition, housing for construction workers is regulated by the collective agreement for the construction sector, but this does not – in practice – regulate housing for foreign temporary workers. In the berry picking sector, attention has been drawn to the safety of workers' accommodation and a letter of intent has been signed with the aim of improving accommodation standards.
The rescue services will search a burning building for people if they do not obtain reliable information – at the location – that the building is empty. The leader of the rescue services will decide on whether smoke diving should begin. This decision is based on the information gained, or the suspicion that people are in the building, the stage of the fire and an assessment of the risks involved in smoke diving. However, no instructions or clear principles are available on achieving a reasonable reliable estimate of the number of people in a burning building, or evaluating the need to smoke dive.
The Safety Investigation Authority recommends that
• The Ministry of the Environment develop building inspection procedures to ensure that information on the use of buildings is kept up to date. In particular, situations should be identified in which the number of persons residing or staying in a building will increase substantially.
• The Ministry of Employment and the Economy and the Confederation of Finnish Construction Industries are jointly developing the quality and safety of temporary housing for construction industry workers. Accommodation for the employees of both domestic and foreign companies must achieve the level indicated in the collective agreement. Another aim is to have more sections that seek to ensure the safety of accommodation added to the next collective agreement.
• Together with the Emergency Services College and the rescue services, the Ministry of the Interior should determine the principles and guidelines on how the number of people in a burning building can be determined with reasonable certainty, and in what circumstances rescue personnel will engage in smoke diving.