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Health and Safety Risks of Vacant Property

What can be done to minimise risk and maximise prevention

An empty property is not only vulnerable itself – it can also make the owner vulnerable too. In the event of health and safety issues arising from the property, a property owner can risk being faced with huge bills, experiencing significant loss in the property’s value and even be exposed to litigation and compensation claims. So what can property owners do to minimise risk and maximise prevention of problems?

Do your duty

The first thing property owners need to be aware of is any obligations they have in relation to the property. All property owners have what is termed a ‘duty of care’ to those who access the building and it’s important to note that this obligation applies to everyone coming within the property boundary: regardless of whether they’ve been invited or whether they’re trespassing, the owner’s duty of care remains the same. This duty of care renders the property owner:

  • Responsible for the safety of anyone entering the property – whether invited or not.
  • Responsible and liable if anyone injures themselves on the property.
  • Obliged to consider impact of actions relating to their own property on neighbouring properties – particularly when the properties are attached
  • Required to inform the property insurer that the property is vacant, under the ‘change of occupancy’ clause. Vacancy can change the terms and cover of any current policy, so failing to inform the insurer may be considered a breach of this clause. This could mean that even if you’ve been paying insurance premiums during the property’s vacancy, any claim could be rejected. It’s also useful to know that standard policies for commercial premises do not offer cover if the property is unoccupied for over 30 days.

Owners may also be required to inform insurance company of key holders, in the event of problems, particularly if they’re not living locally to the property themselves and could possibly be required to account to the insurer for all keys, depending on the type of insurance or property.

Identify risk

Risk assessment is often used in business and the public sector, but is also very necessary when it comes to property – whether a residential property which happens to be between owners, or a business premises awaiting refurbishment. In brief, conducting a risk assessment involves three distinct actions:

  1. Checking the property thoroughly, inside and out, to identify elements which put the property at risk.
  2. Considering the identified risks and researching ways to minimise these.
  3. Carrying out the necessary actions to reduce the risk.

The majority of risks you’re likely to discover will be those which make your property vulnerable to loss or damage and put you (as the property owner) at risk of litigation in the event that someone gets hurt. Potential risk factors will vary, depending on whether the property’s commercial or domestic, where it’s located and whether the vacancy is short or long term, but in most cases, risk factors (and ways to minimise these) include:

Fire – by arson or accident, such as household appliance or service failure. if they are not turned off. Minimise risks by: removing combustibles and turning off utilities.

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Intruders – intruders to the property can result in theft and damage both inside and out . Intrusion by squatters and anti-social behaviour by trespassers inside the property and exterior damage through fly tipping may also create health hazards. Minimise risks by:

  • Securing access points.
  • Removing contents which could attract opportunist thieves.
  • Stopping regular activities, such as postal deliveries, which could draw attention to the property being empty.
  • Maintaining an illusion of occupancy, through regular activity, such as asking neighbours to park on drive and put bins out.

Weather damage to property – whether burst pipes from freezing, falling masonry from weathered brickwork or unstable chimneys and loose tiles following high winds, weather damage can bring quick deterioration, loss of value and additional hazards to anyone coming onto the property. Minimise risks by: maintaining the property and always inspecting it immediately following periods of poor weather.

Health hazards – infestations can occur in several ways, often through lack of maintenance or as a result of intruders discarding rubbish and even syringes. The presence of rubbish increases the risk of vermin, whilst animal or human faeces creates significant health hazards. Minimise risks by:

  • Securing against animal inhabitation.
  • Securing against trespass and squatters.
  • Treating against vermin infestation and remove all rubbish, even outdoor compost bins, which could attract vermin to the property.

Potential harm to intruders – anyone who accesses the property, perhaps through unexpected access points, such as roof lights, could sue if they have an accident. This is particularly common when properties are left both unmaintained and unsecured. Minimise risks by: Maintaining the property and securing all access points, including those unexpected ones.

Potential harm to invited guests and visitors – sometimes vacant properties have frequent visitors, such as estate agents, managing agents and prospective buyers if the property is changing hands, or surveyors and contractors if the property is being refurbished. Minimise risks by: ensuring visitors are aware that the property is empty and can take additional steps for risk management, such as wearing sensible footwear, hard hats or PPE as required.

Viewing your property from the perspective of these risks should help you to identify weak points present on the property itself.

If you’re still not sure of the scale of risk to your property from criminal elements (remember that this can vary according to location) then using local crime statistics to research reported crimes such as arson, vandalism and burglary in the property’s postcode can be invaluable in helping you not only assess the level of risk, but also ascertain the types of risk.

Prevent and protect

Finally, as a property owner, implement your duty of care to your property, your investment and your own peace of mind by reducing risk, preventing problems and protecting your property.

As well as the basic suggestions above, always communicate with neighbours and local services, such as police, fire and local council, to inform them that the property is vacant. Always organise a regular schedule of inspection and checking, to be carried out yourself or by a trusted person, preferably a professional.

Ensuring that you also fully secure the property against unwanted entry minimises many of the risk factors identified above. Try to think like an intruder and identify how and where they could potentially access the property. Suggested ways to provide both visible deterrent and active protection include:

  • Monitored CCTV to deter intruders and allow quick response in the event of problems. Using monitored systems can also be helpful in the event of fire breaking out or pipes bursting.
  • Steel screens both reduce risk of arson and help keep intruders out – especially from those hard to protect access points such as rooflights, as screening can be custom-fitted for full protection.
  • Perimeter security to limit accessibility onto the overall site, as well as the property itself and minimise risk of fly tipping. Temporary bollards and hoardings could also be suitable, depending on the location.

Whilst every property and location is different, it’s possible to minimise health and safety risks by responding appropriately to your duty of care and providing maximum security for your vacant property. Further information on protecting and securing empty property can be found in the SafeSite Security Solutions guide.

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Michael Knibbs is the director of SafeSite Facilities. SafeSite Facilities provide vacant property security products and services, as well as facilities management, barriers and fencing solutions, and event products and services. Established in 2009, we now ha...
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