Fire is the most devastating hazard for factories and warehouses. Cuts to fire services in the UK have led to extended response times and, when they arrive, firefighters are tasked with preservation of life, not property, and the effects of fire and smoke on buildings, machinery and stock can be compounded by water damage from fire hoses. These risks plus a variety of combustible materials on many sites show that a thorough fire risk assessment, updated regularly, its controls carefully maintained, is a necessity to safeguard businesses.
What follows is a guide to what to cover in a fire risk assessment for manufacturing and storage premises and how to implement the resulting controls. It draws on the Department for Communities and Local Government’s comprehensive fire assessment guide (bit.ly/2orZUEc).
You should start by identifying all fire hazards in and around the premises, including stored objects, machinery and structural elements that could aid the spread of fire.
The most common ignition sources for factories and warehouses include cigarettes and matches (and even cigarette lighters) carelessly discarded by employees. Clearly designated smoking areas and cigarette bins and a strictly enforced smoking policy will limit the hazard.
The latest statistics show deliberate fires increased by 17% to 83,475 in the 12 months to 30 September 2016
Sources linked to manufacturing processes include naked flames and sparks that can easily ignite dust and accumulated debris. Machinery and vehicles can produce friction heat and static that may ignite combustible materials. This is a particular risk in factory and distribution environments with conveyor belts.
Air cooling or ventilation for machinery must be well maintained and vents kept free from obstructions. Equipment designed to extract dust and fumes can become hot or clogged up, posing a fire risk in itself.
Poorly maintained equipment, overloaded sockets, electrical devices and worn or underspecified cables are prone to break and generate heat.
The phasing out of incandescent lights is removing a localised heat source. Halogen lamps are of particular concern, although these may be less likely to be used in a factory or warehouse environment.
Heating and ventilation systems, including radiators, seem benign but the rule is never to block ventilation, cover heat sources or place at-risk objects near them.
Modelling exercises will allow you to predict the path of flames and smoke, and how they will affect escape routes
If your premises are a sufficient distance from neighbouring businesses to reduce the likelihood of fire spreading from them, your main external fire risk is arson. The latest Home Office statistics show that deliberate fires increased by 17% to 83,475 in the 12 months to 30 September 2016. Combustible materials should not be left in easily accessible locations, such as skips at the sides of buildings, and site security should be adequate to deter intruders, including installing lighting, security fences and cameras if necessary.
Fuel sources commonly found in factories and warehouses include flammable liquids such as petrol, methylated spirit and white spirit. Paint, oils, varnishes and adhesives can all pose a risk. Flammable chemicals and cleaning products can often present an equal or greater fire risk than the dust and residue they are used to remove.
Waste products and debris including wood shavings, dust, shredded paper and other litter can easily accumulate if strict cleaning routines are not enforced.
Gases including liquefied petroleum gas and other coolants are common where products are refrigerated and transported, making their storage and handling an active fire risk.
Stored goods are also a source of fuel. High-density pallet racking and other warehouse systems can concentrate the risk from combustible goods and cartons. Cardboard boxes, packing materials and labels all present a fire risk, both stored in quantity, baled for recycling and when blown around or discarded.
Some foodstuffs are either flammable or prone to spontaneous combustion. These include products with a high oil content, butter, sugar, cinnamon, flour and pistachio nuts. The latter are listed in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods code: Flammable Solids (Substances Liable to Spontaneous Combustion) as they can combust when stacked under pressure.
Combustible insulation is not limited to residential blocks. At-risk areas should be assessed for these materials as soon as possible.
The third component of the fire triangle, after ignition and fuel sources, is oxygen. The air around us is the primary source of oxygen for a fire. However, other sources of oxygen include oxidising chemicals – identified by their COSHH hazard logo – and oxygen cylinders such as those used for welding.
Who’s at risk?
The obvious answer to the question of who has to be protected is people in and around the premises. This point ought to be self-explanatory, but it is also all-encompassing. You must consider where all staff and visitors to your site are likely to be in the event of a fire, and ensure that they have clear and safe routes out of the building.
Planning must take into account the mobility of individual staff and visitors, their knowledge of protocols and their ability to leave the premises swiftly and safely. Special accommodation should be made to help individuals or groups who have a heightened risk in the event of a fire. These include:
- vulnerable people (such as pregnant workers and those with disabilities)
- lone or isolated workers (cleaning or maintenance staff)
- people with language difficulties, or for whom English is not a first language
- anyone who is not familiar with your fire action plan.
Fire safety protocols should consist of three elements. The first is evaluating the degree of risk. Fires are most commonly started by accident (by people dropping or forgetting to extinguish something, for example), by negligence (poor maintenance and cleaning), or deliberately by arsonists. A combination of employee training, incident reporting and aggressive identification of risk factors will help to reduce the risks posed by these three scenarios.
There is always a possibility that a fire may occur in your factory or warehouse, regardless of how well you have prepared. As such, you need to consider what will happen in the event of a fire, and how this could put people at risk. Modelling exercises will allow you to predict the path of flames and smoke, and how they will affect escape routes, as well as the time it will take for the fire to spread between rooms.
The Grenfell Tower blaze in June 2017 demonstrated how fire can quickly spread out of control between rooms and even floors, while toxic smoke can quickly make it difficult to breathe, make decisions and navigate corridors. It’s important to identify these risks well in advance, and make every effort to mitigate them through structural modifications and training.
Once you have identified the risks and the impact they will have, it’s time to put your knowledge into action. Where possible, you should aim to:
- remove sources of ignition, fuel and oxygen
- control the density of people and goods
- alter layouts to make evacuation easier
- implement early detection and warning systems
- facilitate firefighting and access for fire fighters
- ensure fire escapes are clearly marked, lit and maintained
- install emergency lighting and clear signage
- ensure proper maintenance of equipment and factory or warehouse flooring.
Record, plan, inform
Many OSH management systems fall down because there is a failure to pay attention to the administration. If you don’t record reported risks, hazards and incidents, it becomes impossible to learn from mistakes and to improve through iterative change. Every significant finding in your assessment should be documented, along with the action taken to address it. This is not just evidence of compliance with the Fire Safety Order; it helps to inform your future policies.
Identifying how a fire is likely to spread, the makeup of your workforce and visitors, and which risks you cannot completely eliminate puts you in a position to draft an informed emergency plan. This should offer clear, unambiguous guidance to everyone on site, and should be made available for people’s convenience, as well as being committed to memory by responsible people in the workplace, to help co-ordinate evacuation.
Training is also a crucial element of workforce preparedness. There are several officially recognised fire safety courses you can offer to general employees as well as managers and fire marshals. Where fire safety responsibilities are delegated, a culture should be instilled in which safety is treated seriously, and lines of communication are clear. Co-operation and clarity, as much as preparation, are vital for a successful fire safety policy.
Once your fire risk assessment has been carried out and your response formulated, it’s important not to just abandon it. Your assessment will serve as the template for future ones, which should be carried out periodically, and if there are any substantive changes to the makeup of your premises. These may include new personnel with specific needs, new equipment, layout changes, structural changes and other factors.
It will be up to you to decide whether a change requires a whole new assessment or simply a spot fix, but you should aim to review and revise your policy whenever it seems necessary. Each new risk factor could have a snowball effect on others, changing the profile and impinging on seemingly unaffected control factors and measures. Remain vigilant and take no chances, and you will stand the best chance of mitigating the risks.