Managing Workplace Fire Risks

Fire is among the worst culprits when it comes to causing damage in the workplace. To protect against it, specific fire safety measures must be put in place and preventative action taken. Even if employees are not directly affected — for example, if a fire occurs when the premises are empty — a major fire can wipe out a company’s stock, its data and equipment, and seriously damage (if not destroy) whole buildings. This causes huge setbacks for businesses in terms of continuing operations and can have a devastating effect on revenue. Even with the help of insurance payouts, many businesses never fully recover from a major disaster. At best, it can take several years to get up to speed with normal operating procedures.

Fire statistics

UK Government statistics indicate that during 2015/16, the total number of fires attended by the fire and rescue services was approximately 329,000 — an increase of 5% on the previous year. This figure accounts for around 31% of all incidents attended. Other incidents often include medical callouts and, unfortunately, false alarms.

The notable increase in fires may be driven in part by a 12% increase in deliberate primary fires since 2014/15. Arson also accounts for 12% of all fires. In 2016/17, fires in non-dwellings in England continued to claim lives, with 11 people losing their lives in fires started accidentally and six dying in fires started deliberately.

The number of non-fatal casualties in buildings that were not dwellings (including business premises, for example) increased by 23% to over 1,000 in 2015/16. In fact, non-fatal casualties have increased to a level similar to those recorded between 2007/08 and 2011/12.

Another concern for businesses, especially those involved with transport or those that make use of haulage contractors, is that vehicle fires have been increasing. In 2015/16, fire incidents involving vehicles rose by 7% compared to the previous year. Add to this a 10% increase in outdoor fires and the outlook for keeping your workplace safe from fire is not very encouraging.

Most common causes of fire

Despite stringent health and safety regulations, there are certain types of fires that recur frequently. These occur as a result of:

  • Faulty electrics
  • Flammable and combustible materials
  • Human error
  • Negligence
  • Arson

Fires are also caused as a result of personal smoking materials. However, legislation to prohibit smoking except in designated areas is considered to have improved the statistics considerably in terms of fires started this way.

Employers’ legal responsibilities

In the UK, there are rules and regulations as a result of legislation that enforce health and safety measures in the workplace. These include responsibilities that employers must take seriously and duties that they have to perform. What follows are examples of measures the employer must take related to the principal causes of workplace fires.

Faulty electrics are the biggest cause of workplace fires. This includes loose electrical wires, overloaded plugs and old equipment. During 2015/16 in England, half of all fires were caused by cooking appliances, with a quarter being caused by other electrical goods. Every workplace is legally obliged to properly maintain all electrical equipment and to conduct Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) at least annually. These tests are to ensure that your electrical goods are fit for purpose and stay in good working order. Failure to test on this basis can not only result in a fire breaking out, but you could also be penalised.

If combustible and flammable materials are used in your workplace, they represent a dangerous hazard to your employees as well as your business. Fire safety risk assessments are particularly vital when hazardous materials are being used, so a robust fire safety plan is needed. Appropriate storage of materials, correct disposal and suitable procedures for handling these substances should be in place. Once again, failure to comply with the specified regulations could result in a fire at your workplace and legal persecution.

Accidents in the workplace can also cause fires, particularly if an employee spills liquid onto electrical equipment, for example, or burns something in the kitchen. Liquids that are flammable or combustible should be handled in a similar fashion to other hazardous materials. To minimise accidental fires and maximise fire prevention, employers should ensure that there is sufficient fire safety equipment available and that staff are trained to use it. As the kitchen can often be the place where a fire first starts, it is vital to install firefighting equipment and to fit smoke detectors and alarms.

Another serious threat to a responsible employer is negligence, which is different to accidents caused by human error. Human error is unavoidable. Negligence is not. If proper procedures are not followed or a member of staff undertakes an activity known as a potential fire hazard, the consequences can be very severe indeed. In the event of a serious incident, the business stands to lose any recompense should negligence be proved. This could lead to serious financial problems, including redundancies and possible closure. Providing staff training covering the correct ways of working and handling procedures is thus essential.

It is alarming that deliberate fires are increasing, with factories and industrial estates being particularly prone to vandalism. Furthermore, fires can spread quickly from one unit to another if proper fire control features have not been installed. These include elements such as fireproof shutters and water sprinkler systems. Furthermore, vandals and trespassers can be deterred by CCTV and appropriate security fences and gates. Apart from these precautions, a good fire safety and evacuation plan is invaluable should an incident transpire while the premises are occupied.

Essential fire safety and firefighting products

Fire safety in the workplace can be improved if your business is properly equipped to prevent and tackle fires. Fire extinguishers are available in a range of different kinds to target different types of fire, depending on your business premises and the range of materials handled there. You may, for example, require powder extinguishers in certain places and chemical extinguishers in others. It may be appropriate to have a wall-mounted hose pipe or to add fire blankets and key guards to your other safety equipment.

All premises should be fitted with appropriate alarms, such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and fire alarms. Safety signage is needed to guide employees towards fire exits and to indicate the location of firefighting equipment. Responsible employers display their safety and evacuation information in prominent positions and make sure these are easy to interpret, as well as ensuring that all employees are familiar with fire safety procedures.

Raising awareness about fire safety

It is important that everyone in an organisation realises that they have a personal responsibility for fire safety — this is not just a matter for designated fire wardens. Employees’ actions in an emergency are critical to their safety and that of others. All staff should attend basic fire safety training, preferably as part of their induction when they are new to the business. After this, regular refresher sessions should be provided plus briefings when changes are made.

As an employer, it is your responsibility to carry out (or arrange for a third party to carry out) a fire risk assessment at your place of work. Your risk assessment should be reviewed regularly and subsequently revised if necessary. The purpose of the assessment is to identify any hazards that need to be mitigated or addressed. You should also include any gaps that you identify in staff knowledge or training, or any omissions in the workplace safety and evacuation plans and procedures that you have in place. This is required in order to comply with the law.

Your fire evacuation plan

We have developed some pointers to help you establish a foolproof fire evacuation plan. Systematically work your way through these to ensure that nothing is overlooked:

  • Make sure that all your employees know how to activate the nearest fire alarm.
  • Give employees the chance to practise during a fire drill.
  • If employees are trained and it is safe to do so, let them tackle the fire using the nearest suitable fire extinguishers.
  • Consider how people with visual or hearing impairments can be warned and assisted in leaving the building.
  • Decide how people with mobility difficulties can be safely evacuated at ground level.
  • Make sure that people leave the building using the nearest safe exit.
  • Instruct fire wardens to check all parts of the building to confirm that everyone has left.
  • Exit doors must be clearly identified and free from obstruction.
  • Place firefighting equipment in appropriate areas and make sure that only trained employees use it.
  • Escort customers or visitors from the building using designated safety routes.
  • Get fire wardens to check that windows are closed and machinery is isolated.
  • Contact the fire brigade and take the visitor book or register outside for a roll call.
  • Call any other emergency services that may be needed — for example, medical services.
  • Make sure that a designated fire warden notifies the fire brigade of any hazards in the building.

In order to guarantee that your fire procedure and evacuation plan is kept up to date, run fire drills at least once a year so that employees are aware of what to do in an emergency. Give regular briefings, especially when circumstances on your premises change. Ensure that training provision is accurate and up to date.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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