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On the front burner

The creation of a fire-safe working culture should be a priority for construction firms to prevent life-threatening incidents on sites

Take a minute to think about who is present on a construction site and the immediate surroundings. There’s everyone in the supply chain, including the client, the principal designer, the principal contractor, designers, subcontractors, suppliers and manufacturers, not forgetting site visitors and workers as well as members of the public in the local vicinity, notably children and the elderly.
 
Next, take into account all the hazardous substances, environments and processes which are associated with construction projects. With such huge potential for property damage and the loss of human life, it is clear that effective safeguards to prevent fires cannot and should not be overlooked.
 

The construction industry has improved its safety record over the past decade. Even so, the sector still strives to further reduce the number of accidents and fatalities which not only have an impact on workers’ lives and those of their families, but also create a significant financial burden and reputational damage, even in instances where there have been no reportable incidents on site.


Sharp rise in fires

Figures obtained by Construction News (see Figure 1) from the Home Office (bit.ly/2LfovTq) show that the number of deliberately caused fires on construction sites increased by nearly 43% between 2015 and 2017, despite the rate of new construction work increasing by only 13% (bit.ly/2Z8SUg9).

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data (see Figure 2) shows that between 2015-16 and 2017-18 three construction workers in the UK were killed and 70 construction workers were injured as a result of fire or explosion (bit.ly/2GstV02). 

These fatalities demonstrate why it is so important to put effective safeguards in place to avoid these tragic incidents.
It is worth noting that, although the number of fires on construction sites significantly increased between 2015 and 2017, the number of fire-related incidents (both specified injuries and over-seven-day injuries) that are reportable under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) has reduced.


Best practice

A number of guidance documents have been produced demonstrating best practice in terms of reducing the likelihood of fires on construction sites. 

They include the HSE’s guidance in HSG 168 (bit.ly/1SzBLWk), which sets out the key principles of fire risk assessment, guidance on fire precautions and an explanation of the relevant legislation; the Fire Protection Association’s (FPA) construction site fire prevention on construction sites checklist (bit.ly/2K0nOkk); and the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations in Europe’s (CFPAE) common guidelines (bit.ly/2y7nCua), which provide examples of acceptable solutions, concepts and models.
 
The purpose of these documents is to prevent as many fires on construction sites as possible and to reduce the severity of those that do occur. Most fires can be prevented by reducing the number of hazards present, in terms of both potential sources of ignition and the fire load. 
 
Measures can be put in place to achieve this which are not onerous and do not result in major changes to the patterns of work or the processes and procedures that are undertaken. If action is taken early on in the design phase of a project, in most cases there will be no impact on the timescale of the construction process. In the UK, the FPA’s document is considered best practice by the insurance industry and if the guidance is not followed this could place the validity of a policy at risk.

Businesses can significantly reduce the likelihood of a fire by taking effective action at several stages.


Design phase

In the concept and design phase, and as detailed in the Mobile Works Directive 92/57/EEC (bit.ly/2Ytd47e), the client and appointed parties should work together to identify and eliminate hazards and reduce the likely risk from them where elimination is not reasonably practicable. This includes all potential fire hazards which may be identifiable at the design stage.
 
At this stage of the construction process the following should be considered:
  • the use of non-combustible and non-flammable materials to reduce the fire load
  • materials and methods that avoid the need for hot work on site
  • design details that prevent the passage of smoke 
  • and flames up through a building during the construction phase
  • design of access routes to enable contractors to construct buildings in such a way as to retain safe evacuation routes during the construction phase
  • designing fire-fighting systems and fire alarm systems to allow for early use.

Construction phase

The construction phase is sometimes referred to as the “build phase” in recognised industry guidance, and therefore you may well come across statements such as: “During the build phase the nominated responsible person must take such general fire precautions as will ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of his employees and, in relation to persons who are not his employees, take such general precautions as may reasonably be required in such circumstances.”

In practice this means that the responsible person or contractor should:
  • ensure a fire-safe working culture is actively promoted at all times
  • ensure one or more competent persons are appointed to assist the responsible person in carrying out their duties
  • ensure they follow all procedures and precautionary measures identified in the site fire safety plan and make sure that these are clearly understood and complied with by all on site
  • make sure permit systems are in place for any hot work required on site and monitor compliance
  • ensure all fire alarm systems are tested regularly as well as other smoke and heat detectors
  • make sure all emergency exits and escape routes are maintained and free from obstructions and that all emergency lighting is functional
  • liaise with local fire and rescue, including any site visits by the emergency services as required
  • maintain a regime for fire protection equipment, a written record of fire safety training and arrangements/procedures for calling the emergency services
  • make sure in the event of a fire that the duties for safe evacuation (see box below) are executed, and all staff and visitors report to assembly points.

Specialist environments

Consideration should also be given to how specialist environments on construction sites such as confined spaces are dealt with.

In a confined space, certain activities such as operating plant and refuelling (especially with petrol) should not take place. Equally, refuelling should not take place on scaffolds or escape routes. Refuelling should take place only in the open air or in well-ventilated spaces away from ignition sources and bulk flammable liquid storage tanks should be bunded to current standards.

The use of portable petrol-fuelled generators indoors, or in partially enclosed areas to provide a power source for heating, lighting and other equipment, can put operators at risk of serious illness and death from carbon monoxide poisoning.

This hazard is present from the exhaust fumes of any internal combustion engine, and care needs to be taken to avoid the use of other equipment such as disc cutters, chain saws, floor polishers and pressure washers.

All of this requires the development of an effective fire-safe working culture. This is where everyone is empowered to make sure that the construction site is safe and as free from fire risk as possible. The culture’s creation starts at the design stage and is maintained throughout the life of the construction project and extends to ensuring that final delivery is completed and handed over safely.

The seven steps to creating a fire-safe working culture are as follows:
  • Reduce risks at source: wherever possible design out fire risks in the early stages of the design process
  • Communicate: make sure everyone on-site, including visitors, is aware of the emergency procedures and liaises with the local emergency services
  • Provide training: train, train and train so that, in the event of an incident, people do not rise to the occasion but fall to the level of their training
  • Lead by example: make sure that the senior people on-site constantly do the right thing and role-model the behaviour you would like everyone to exhibit
  • Develop a positive reporting process for fire hazards: make sure everyone knows how to report hazards and is empowered to deal with issues they identify on site
  • Involve everybody: fire safety is everybody’s responsibility – make sure you all play your part in keeping yourself and others safe
  • Put your plans into action: it’s not enough just to risk assess – you need to make sure you put your plans into action and continuously monitor to make sure they are still fit for purpose throughout the life of the construction project.

Construction site evacuation

In early September, IOSH is due to publish new research on construction site evacuation safety, specifically from high-rise buildings.

Researchers at the University of Greenwich, funded by IOSH, examined a number of areas, including how construction site workers perceive the risk associated with working on high-rises and their knowledge of evacuation procedures, with a view to improving safety in this area.

The study was commissioned because of the soaring scale of high-rise building construction, which means a large number of workers are exposed to demanding conditions and the potential for large-scale evacuation.

The research will be available to view at: bit.ly/2K6E0SB.

 

 

Lucy Pritchard is communications officer for the executive committee of IOSH’s construction group
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