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The Dangers of Fire in the Workplace and Construction Sites

Every firm or organisation has to comply by law to general fire safety regulations, particularly when on construction sites. There will need to be a designated fire safety officer who must regularly check and assess if the workplace is a safe environment in which to operate.

Being Responsible for Health and Safety is a Significant Undertaking

This responsible person will often be the main contractor who is on site and in control. The health and safety rep will need to check that fire exits are not blocked or restricted. This is an ongoing task, as one day everything will be clear, and suddenly a delivery arrives and the boxes, items or pallets can be temporarily left in an unsafe position in front of the fire exit.

Fire Risk Assessment

The risk assessment involves determining the potential sources of ignition, which items could burn and who would be at risk should a fire break out. A record must be kept of all the risks and the action plan to reduce that risk.

Means of Escape in an Emergency

A fire marshall and the health and safety officer should always monitor the means of escape in the event of a fire. What are the best routes and are there any alternative routes employees could take?

A company should look to keep fire exits and fire escape routes clear at all times. Many warehouses and construction sites have a permanent metal railing on the side of the fire escape route, which prevents boxes, pallets or other obstructions from being left in the front of the doors.

Emergency Assembly Points

The assembly points are also important considerations when dealing with workplace safety. Important questions which employees need to know the answers to include:

  • Do you know where the assembly point is?
  • Do you know what the emergency number on site is (if different to 999)?
  • Can you name the fire marshall?
  • From your current workplace and desk location, which route would you take in the event of a fire?

Fire Alarms
An emergency break glass red fire alarm

Fire alarms should always be tested at least once per week. Employees must all be informed of the day and time when the regular test takes place. This should be kept at the same time and day of the week to prevent confusion.

Besides the main priority of protecting the health and safety of people, fires should also be prevented because they can devastate large sections of a workplace and result in significant financial costs to put right, not to mention the disruption to normal operations that will also ensue in the weeks and months afterwards. Whilst the company may be covered by their insurance for the actual damage caused by the fire, they are highly unlikely to have any insurance policy in place which also covers the loss of trading and the expense of putting temporary solutions into effect to overcome any areas/equipment which is out of action because of the fire.

Extra Fire Risks During Construction Work

Construction or renovation activities within an existing building can create extra fire risks that would normally not be present during the building's normal usage, or at the very least would be at a much lower risk level.

These risks to the health and safety of those working in or around the building from fire can be particularly severe, with the danger from fire and the smoke it produces being potentially deadly. They include:

The build up and storage of items and material. Construction work inevitably creates mess with material, fixtures, furniture etc coming and going, not to mention a number of tools and accessories being needed at different times. All of this can not only cause a fire hazard due to the greatly increased amount of flammable material, but it can also clog up corridors and block fire escapes, which can hinder evacuation and escape in the event of a fire. There is also a tendency to prop open fire doors when there is a lot of coming and going, which can make it much easier for a fire to spread if these are not closed and a fire starts when nobody is there.

Turning off electricity supply and alarms. To avoid the risk of electrocution, whilst work is being carried out it may be necessary to switch off the electricity supply. This is likely to cause fire safety features such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems not to function, which obviously increases the chances of a fire growing to such an extent that it causes harm to people's health and wellbeing.

Extra people on site. The people who do not usually work on the premises but have come in specifically to work on the project will need to be instructed in the relevant health and safety information and emergency procedures that apply on site. If they are not, they will not be aware of crucial information such as where to assemble in the event of an emergency fire evacuation, which might place themselves in danger or others who unnecessarily re-enter the burning building to look for them believing that they are still inside.

Fire Safety on a Construction Site Needs to be Constantly Updated

Construction sites are constantly changing and evolving. Unlike other places of work which are likely to remain relatively unchanged for long periods of time, a construction or building site will by its very nature be changing through different structures being put up or taken down, new access routes appearing and disappearing, new personnel on site, e.g. if the work enters a new stage which requires a different team with specialist skills to come in etc. All of this means that fire safety measures which were sufficient in the past may not now be relevant, or may even place workers in more danger rather than helping them to stay safe. As a result, fire safety plans will need to be revised and updated as the site layout and/or activities change.

For example, site workers may have been informed that the assembly point in the event of an emergency evacuation is at the back of the main building. If however that space is then used to store materials or work has begun on another structure there, it will no longer be practical for the assembly point to be there. Not only will another suitable space need to be found, but this change in location will need to be communicated to all workers. If some end up going to the old location because they were not informed of the change, not only will they possibly be putting themselves in danger (e.g. falling down a hole where the new foundation work has started), but may also be putting the lives of others at risk who may think that they are still in the burning building when they are not present for the roll call at the new assembly location and re-enter the burning building to try and find them.

Workers will also need to be informed when other circumstances change such as the re-instatement of gas or electricity supplies, as certain activities done when a person believes they are off when in actual fact they are back on can lead to a fire starting. Also, different types of fire extinguishers may need to be provided as previously non-used substances are introduced onto the site for the first time.

Not only will a fire risk assessment need to be done before work starts, but will need to be done frequently as the activities and situation changes on the construction site.

How Can Construction Site Fires Affect The Health of the Public?

A fire which breaks out on a construction site will usually only be a risk to the workers and visitors on the site at the time. However there may be times when construction site fires have the potential to kill or injure members of the public who are situated outside of the site boundaries. Site managers not only have a responsibility for the health and safety of those on site, but also to members of the public who could have their health affected by the site.

The most obvious danger is the spread of fire. Whilst it may not be much of an issue if the works are taking place on a site which is in a remote location with no surrounding buildings, a large number of construction activities take place in built up areas where other buildings may be located close by or even adjoining the premises which is being worked on. In these situations it will not take much for the fire to spread, particularly if there is a strong wind which blows the fire in that direction.

Fires can also lead to explosions such as gas explosions which can damage or destroy nearby buildings. If this were to happen, the falling roof timbers and collapsing walls can easily kill or severely injure the occupants of those buildings.

Although the consequences of an explosion can be extremely damaging, it will usually only affect those buildings which are in close proximity to the site. A more wide reaching effect and so a danger with the potential to affect the health of a much greater number of people are fires which occur on sites which have hazardous chemicals or substances present. These can escape into the atmosphere or nearby watercourses and cause illness or be fatal to people living in a large radius from the site, sometimes incorporating whole towns which may need to be evacuated. For example, a fire at a construction works building a second reactor at a nuclear power station could cause damage to the first reactor, which may have serious repercussions for anyone situated for miles around.

Reducing The Risk of Fire on a Construction Site

The danger posed by fire is significant on a construction site. Flames, smoke inhalation and explosions can all kill or severely injure workers on site as well as members of the public in nearby buildings which means that preventing fires from starting in the first place is of significant importance. Even with all the prevention measures and fire safety training in the world, the risk of a fire breaking out cannot totally be eliminated, and so suitable fire fighting equipment and pre-determined escape routes need to be introduced and conveyed to workers before a fire situation arises.

There are a number of steps which can be taken to reduce the chances of a fire starting on a construction site. Firstly, site workers should be provided with health and safety training courses which include an element covering fire safety and prevention. This will improve their knowledge, understanding and awareness of the fire risks that may be present on a construction site. A lack of knowledge or common sense is often the main cause of an accident or incident happening, and is equally valid when it comes to the outbreak of a fire.

Secondly, preventing the build up of flammable material can help to prevent a fire occurring or stop it from spreading to a level where it cannot be contained or easily extinguished. This includes clearing away items which will burn such as wood off-cuts and packaging material in a timely manner, as well as keeping them away from potential sources of ignition like heaters or live electricity wires which may be exposed by the building work or renovation taking place.

Compartmentalising and separating rooms or areas with fire doors can also help to contain any fire which starts. This can greatly slow down the spread of a fire, which improves the chances of the fire brigade being able to put out the fire before it becomes a major - and potentially deadly - incident.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, prevention measures cannot completely eliminate the risk of fire, and so suitable action plans and emergency escape exits and routes introduced before a fire starts. This needs to be clearly communicated to everyone on site so that everybody knows where to go and any roles they may have in an emergency such as being a fire marshal or shutting off the gas supply, as confusion in a fire can be the difference between death and life.

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