Why is a Fire Risk Assessment Important?
A fire in the workplace can be one of the most serious and deadly of dangers, which can not only cause death or severe injuries, but can also have a serious financial impact upon a business and its trading operations. A large number of companies are so badly affected by a fire that they struggle to ever recover and sometimes have to close down.
Due to the serious consequences of a fire on people and property, it is a legal requirement in many countries for your employees to receive suitable fire safety training. This can include health and safety courses such as the NEBOSH Fire Certificate and training like the fire warden or fire marshall courses, as well as induction training for new starters and frequent refresher programmes.
Along with training, a key component of a company's fire safety and prevention responsibilities is the production of a fire risk assessment. This will identify issues such as where and how a fire could start on the premises including sources of ignition and fuel, who would be at risk and why (e.g. danger of being trapped, working in a particularly flammable environment etc.), and the steps required to remove or reduce the risk of fire. The risk assessment must also take into consideration the risks from the outbreak of fire on those people who are not employed by the company but may still be in danger such as nearby members of the public or visitors to the site. The fire risk assessment is therefore an extremely important document which needs to be performed by a competent person.
Things to Consider in a Fire Risk Assessment
A fire risk assessment will, amongst other things, consider the existing fire safety measures and controls in place, and highlight possible improvements that could be introduced in order to reduce the probability of a fire occurring in the workplace which would then pose a danger to the health and safety of workers and those nearby, as well as being potentially hazardous to the environment in terms of toxic gases produced from burning material being released into the air or being washed into nearby streams and rivers by the water used to extinguish a fire.
Some considerations to include in a good fire risk assessment are:
Procedures and Training
Making it up as you go along as a fire burns around you can waste time and can be the difference between life or death. A detailed plan which includes specifics such as who is responsible for what in the event of a fire, and the procedures for evacuation and assembly, is required before an incident. This should then be communicated to workers as part of their health and safety training and through regular refresher courses. Having workers attend courses like the NEBOSH Fire Safety Certificate will also give them a great deal of knowledge regarding fire safety.
Fires need to be detected as soon as possible in order to give people the best chance of escape. The earlier a fire is detected and the alarm raised, the more time they will have. Workers need to be able to recognise the sound of the alarm, what it means and know what to do when they hear it. Alarm points should be located within easy reach to enable the alarm to be raised quickly.
Whilst large fires should be left for the fire brigade to deal with, small fires can be tackled and extinguished before they spread and become too damaging or dangerous, provided that it does not put a person in danger by staying and fighting the blaze. To do this, suitable fire fighting equipment needs to be made available such as the correct type of fire extinguishers, and workers should receive training to use the equipment if necessary.
Poorly maintained machinery and the equipment to fight fires can all contribute to a fire starting, spreading and being a serious hazard to health which could have been avoided. Therefore, suitable maintenance is a must when it comes to fire safety.
This list is by no means exhaustive and provides just some of the things to take into consideration when preparing, performing and evaluating a fire risk assessment (Related Course: Fire Risk Assessment Training Course.
Carrying out a Fire Risk Assessment
Any business has to be able to give their clients and their staff assurances that fire safety is taken seriously and that all reasonable preventative measures are in place. Whilst workplace fires are quite rare, they aren't rare enough that you can dismiss the idea entirely; you need to be prepared for any eventuality.
1) To start with, you need to take a comprehensive look of the premises and ensure that you cannot find any weaknesses or potential hazards. Pay attention to things like naked flames, friction sparks, chemicals and heating systems. Additionally, pay attention to things like storage, waste, materials, textiles or even stock - it all has the potential to be set ablaze.
2) Next, you also need to look for things like working operations - is anyone too close to a fire when they are working? What about those who are working in isolation such as sheds, roofs or even just those who work on spacious office floors with little activity? Are they safe?
3) Evaluate the entire process and take a deep look at how your business manages fire risks assessments; afterwards, you need to create a probability list of how likely a potential fire is. Any hazards discovered need to be dealt with, and many others also need to be addressed or removed (poor working zones etc.) to get the most out of your business. Highly flammable materials, for example, need to be noted in an evaluation so they can be potentially replaced.
4) Look at things like smokers within the workplace - do they have a designated area? If not, why not?
5) Make sure all flammable sources are stored far away from any potential forms of ignition - you never know what can be set off.
6) Determine if any materials can be substituted for less flammable ones or, more preferably, eliminated completely.
7) Record any and all incidents throughout the inspection and make sure that everything that is found during inspection is at least looked into for more ideas about how it can be minimised or remedied.
Reviewing and Monitoring a Fire Risk Assessment
The contents of a fire risk assessment can provide a great deal of information on the current state of an organisation's fire safety provisions and what needs to be changed or implemented in order to reduce the risks of a fire either starting and/or spreading, which could then pose a serious danger to the health and safety of those inside or near the premises.
The downside of fire risk assessments, much like the financial balance sheet of a company, is that they provide information at a particular point in time but will become more and more out of date as time goes on. And although an incorrect balance sheet can be misleading, an incorrect fire risk assessment can prove to be potentially deadly if it places workers, site visitors or members of the public at risk.
Fire risk assessments therefore need to be monitored and reviewed regularly even if there are no significant changes in the place of work. However, if there are changes, then a new and updated fire risk assessment may need to be performed in order to take into account these changes, as the information contained in the previous assessment may now be misleading and place people in danger rather than helping to prevent risks to health.
These changes will include:
A significant alteration to the layout of the site. For example, the emergency exits have been moved due to an extension to the building or a change in the layout of the working space.
A significant change to the processes used on site. The introduction of new robotic equipment or machinery could pose a danger from fire if it they not maintained properly or located next to a flammable source of fuel which could ignite and cause a fire.
A change in chemicals or substances used/produced. A change from one chemical to a more flammable or volatile substance in the work process can increase the chances of a fire starting. Similarly, altering a process so that it produces more flammable dust for example increases the risk from flash fires and explosions (Related Page: COSHH information).
Changes to the people on site. This can be either the number or type of people. For example, a significant increase in the number of workers on the premises (e.g. taking on many temporary Christmas staff) can create a fire hazard such as increasing the time taken to evacuate the building or the outside assembly area now being too small to accommodate everyone. In terms of the type, this usually means an increase in members of the public who will now need to be made aware of the fire safety provisions unlike workers who should have received suitable fire safety training as part of their programme of health and safety courses. An example of this is if the company opens up a factory shop or tours of the site.
A fire risk assessment may also need to be performed in the event of a fire occurring, even if it is just a small one. Whilst it is impossible to completely reduce the chances of a fire starting down to zero, it may be the case that the existing controls and precautionary measures are not sufficient and need to be revised to try and stop it from happening again, especially as the next time could be much more serious than this one.
The Continual Need for Fire Risk Assessments
Many businesses may feel like they can get away with performing a fire risk assessment routinely once a year or maybe even less frequently. The reality is that workplaces are usually continually changing, whether it be the type of activities performed, the introduction of new materials or harmful substances into the premises, or even just the build up of items in storage which start to obstruct escape routes can all lead to the need for a fire risk assessment to be performed now rather than waiting for a whole year or however long to elapse.
This point is often highlighted in health and safety courses, particularly for those where the place of work is constantly changing such as a construction site. In this example, many aspects can change from one day/week to the next as earth gets moved around, access roads and emergency assembly points altered, and structures are erected or demolished. As a result, construction safety courses like the NEBOSH Construction Certificate and the Site Manager's SMSTS course give a lot of importance to the topic of fire safety.
However it is not just construction sites which change and prompt the need for a new fire risk assessment. Some ways which affect all businesses were already mentioned in the opening paragraph, but also needing to be considered are people themselves. Not only will new starters need health and safety induction training which includes fire safety measures, they may need special attention in the event of a fire. For example, they may be disabled, elderly, pregnant etc and so possibly require assistance in the event of an emergency evacuation of the premises. Waiting months until the next risk assessment will put them in danger, as a fire could break out tomorrow or any time before that new risk assessment is performed.
Fires are one of the most common hazards to health as they can occur in any place of work regardless of what industry they are in, the products they manufacture or the services they provide. Therefore, fire safety training is a major component of any health and safety training programme for employees. An accredited fire course like the NEBOSH Fire Certificate is perfect for those who are responsible for fire safety within their organisation, covering many topics including fire risk assessments, control measures, the main causes of fires and explosions, evacuation, prevention, and investigating a fire should one occur in the workplace (no amount of precaution or health and safety training can completely eliminate the risk of fire!)
How to Minimise the Risk of Fire in a Workplace
Minimising the risk of fire in a workplace should be a priority for any organisation. It will not be possible to completely eliminate every risk, but effective control measures in tandem with health and safety courses in fire safety will serve to greatly reduce the risks of a fire starting and spreading to such a size that it becomes a danger to the health of everyone in and around the building.
The best way if reducing fires in the workplace is to remove as many potential sources and as much flammable material as possible. It is highly unlikely that everything can be removed without severely impacting upon the operations of the business, but there will usually be some things which can be substituted for others which are less of a fire risk, for example replacing flammable chemical adhesives with ones that are water-based. This substitution is the preferred option to counteract a number of different health and safety risks, such as in COSHH where hazardous solvents are replaced with non-toxic ones.
The next preferable option is to reduce the amount of flammable material or substances on site, as less of it means less fuel for a fire to burn through. A particular cause of concern as it has the potential to lead to explosions and major fires are storage areas where large amounts of flammable material and liquids may be kept. By reducing that amount stored to the minimum required and ordering it in on a little and often basis, as well as introducing measures such as separating substances which may react with each other and cause a substantial fire or explosion that could seriously affect the health of those nearby, the chances of an accident can be reduced to a lower level.
Fire Risks and Temporary Buildings
A lot of fire safety information is available concerning permanent places of work, for example regarding the situating of emergency exits, evacuation assembly points etc, however consideration also needs to be given to temporary workplaces and sites which are not permanent in nature, but where fire safety is no less important.
In actual fact, these temporary buildings are usually even more likely to catch fire or create a danger to health in some way. This is because unlike a permanent structure which is made out of inflammable bricks and glass, a temporary structure is likely to be constructed from cheaper and lighter material such as wood or a canvas marquee which will burn easily if it were to catch fire. Because the structure is only temporary, the owners or managers may not have spent money on fire fighting equipment such as fire extinguishers because they feel it will be a waste as they will be surplus to requirements once the structure is taken down. This means that if a fire were to break out, there would be nothing to tackle the blaze with before it gets out of control and poses a much greater danger to the health and safety of those in the vicinity.
A suitable fire risk assessment needs to be performed by a competent person in order to assess the potential risks from fire. This should also take into consideration factors which may be overlooked such as the location of water supplies with which to fight a fire and the distance and ease of access for the fire brigade if they need to be called. For example, can a large fire engine truck get along the muddy and narrow country lane where the event is being held?
The ease with which fires can start and the devastation they can cause mean that fire safety is a topic which is included in the syllabus of numerous health and safety courses and qualifications. As well as specific fire safety courses such as NEBOSH Fire Certificate courses it is also given a lot of time on qualifications such as the NEBOSH General Certificate and construction courses like the CITB SMSTS and SSSTS certificates.