Continuing fire safety during the pandemic
The COVID-19 emergency has required business owners and employers to meet new rules and regulations in the workplace within record timeframes. Unfortunately, new fire safety risks are emerging as a result of some of the COVID-19 measures that have been required by the government for businesses to be able to reopen.
According to the Home Office’s latest report on fire and rescue incidents in 2019, the fire and rescue services battled 153,957 fires; there were also 243 fire-related fatalities. It has been estimated that fire damage to homes and businesses costs over £1 billion a year. Despite the fact that many of us are shielding at home, statistics show that fire-related incidents in the workplace are no less common.
Following the law
In their struggle to keep up with new recommendations and guidelines, business owners are having to find creative solutions to be able to keep their businesses open whilst adhering to COVID-19 protocols.
Employers have a duty of care to their staff, customers and visitors, and it is imperative that fire safety is not compromised during workplace re-structuring. For reference, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 covers general fire safety in the UK, and states that it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that premises are well prepared in the event of a fire.
To meet your responsibilities you will need to have the correct fire safety equipment in place to support your fire safety and evacuation planning. This will include the installation of fire alarms, fire extinguishers and other fire-fighting equipment to meet fire safety regulations in your specific workplace.
Updating your fire safety risk assessment
As businesses seek to make their workplace COVID-secure, structural changes may be needed to accommodate new social distancing guidelines. These alterations may be compromising your existing fire safety strategy. The addition of new screens or partitioning, for example, may affect smoke detection, fire doors may be propped open illegally, previously used doors or accesses may now be locked, routes through a workplace may have been re-directed to introduce one-way traffic flows.
The National Fire Chief Council has asked that businesses review their Fire Risk Assessments in light of the recent changes, as well as observing safety precautions within closed premises or buildings that are not in use. The HSE has a helpful guide for businesses on how to perform an effective health and safety assessment.
Where businesses have been forced to make closures, whether temporary or permanent, it is important to be aware of the potential fire risks associated with empty premises, including arson, and mitigate potential hazards as appropriate.
Taking another look at evacuation plans
While performing a fire risk assessment it is essential to review and update evacuation plans every time a change is made to the workplace premises. This should take into account the special or additional needs of employees, customers, visitors or residents who may be vulnerable, including those who are elderly, or who have limited mobility or visual impairment. Responsible persons and fire wardens should be elected and trained to ensure that safe evacuation procedures and social distancing are observed in the event of a fire. Regular fire alarm testing and internal fire protection checks must be undertaken as usual.
As part of this process, employers should review Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) with their staff. These procedures are necessary to ensure that individuals who may have difficulties evacuating a building without support or assistance can get to a ‘Total Place of Safety’. This denotes a place, away from the premises, in which people are in no immediate danger from the effects of a fire. PEEPs are particularly important in the care sector and should accurately reflect the needs of staff, residents and visitors on the premises.
Retraining staff for fire safety
Thorough, up-to-date training is mandatory to properly equip staff to be able to follow procedures in the event of a fire emergency. Employees should be regularly updated regarding potential new fire hazards and notified of any changes to evacuation routes that have been necessitated by COVID-19 workplace adjustments. Staff should also be trained to practise social distancing while waiting at fire assembly points during fire drills.
The importance of maintaining optimal fire safety alongside the implementation of mandatory COVID-19 measures cannot be over-emphasised. For further guidance check the government website: Fire Safety in the Workplace.