Fire Safety In construction

Construction By Matthew Coombes

Any construction site, whether its purpose is for construction, demolition, or refurbishment will need to consider fire safety in order to keep everyone on and around the site safe.

Often with a construction project, there are multiple contractors in addition to your employees, all working on-site in different areas, with different equipment and different goals in mind.

This can make managing risks associated with fire safety in construction complex, and no matter how many employees and contractors you have, whether it’s 1, 5, 20 or 200, everyone needs to have an awareness of fire safety.

Start with your own company

Do all of your staff value the importance of fire safety? Do they understand what’s expected of them?

A good safety culture is infectious; if your employees are onboard when it comes to understanding fire safety, what’s expected of them and how to keep everyone safe, it will influence the ‘feel’ of the whole site. In addition, they can lead by example and help to evacuate any contractors around them in the event of a fire – select your contractors well.

Part of ensuring safety comes from selecting contractors who are competent in safety. You should always select contractors based on who’s best for the job, rather than who is the lowest price. Selecting the right contractors is construction safety 101 and in the instance of fire safety, the right contractor will be able to demonstrate what steps they’ve taken to ensure that their staff are aware of fire safety risks, and understand the fire safety risk assessment.

Conduct a fire risk assessment

You can’t address fire safety issues if you’re not aware of them, and a full fire risk assessment should be carried out for every site. It should also be regularly updated to react to any changes such as new work equipment, new contractors, new risks identified, and new stages of the demolition/construction/refurbishment.

It is important that the fire safety risk assessment is carried out by a competent individual with a strong understanding of fire safety, legislative requirements, and most importantly the job and the site.

A fire safety risk assessment needs to consider how people work, and understand the work that they are doing.

Identify high risk tasks and equipment

As part of your fire risk assessment, you should have identified any significant risks caused by high-risk work or higher-risk equipment. Processes like cutting, welding, grinding and other significant sources of heat will greatly increase the risk and outcomes of a fire.

Oxy-Acetylene cutting is a good example. The contents of a pressurised cylinder of oxygen is extremely flammable, an increase of just 2% in oxygen in a closed space creates a highly explosive atmosphere. A small leak in a hose line while cutting or welding in an enclosed space, such as cutting a steel beam to size on the job because it’s not been measured correctly, could lead to this 2% increased atmosphere and an explosion to occur.

Additionally, anything metal that comes into contact with the welding/cutting flame will absorb that heat. The heat can travel to other objects/areas connected to it and cause a fire to occur in another location.

Have a general evacuation plan and a specific evacuation plan where required

An evacuation plan is one of the most fundamentally important pieces of fire safety information. If all else fails and a fire occurs on-site, the ability to quickly reach a safe space is crucial to ensuring no one is injured or dies.

You will need to work with each contractor or organisation to ensure that in the event of a fire, everyone will know the evacuation process and how to evacuate, including where the emergency exits are, and where the fire assembly point or safe places to muster are.

A specific evacuation plan will relate to areas of higher risk work, where an evacuation may need to take different steps or be completed differently. For example:

  • What steps do crane operators take to evacuate in a fire?
  • Are there any areas that are being accessed by non-standard means which may slow down evacuation?
  • How is the evacuation alarm going to be raised, and will all employees and contractors be able to hear the alarm where they are?

Communication

Communication needs to be two-way, consistent, clear and understood.

Two-way: Effective communication can’t just be dictated, you need to have a dialogue that allows input, especially when you’re not likely to understand every little part of a contractor’s job – after all, that’s why you’ve hired them.

Consistent: Any message enforced needs to be consistent across the board, bending rules, not meeting your own requirements and inconsistent communication (such as a different answer depending on which site manager you ask) are all going to reduce the effectiveness of safety on site.

Smoking

Discarded smoking materials, lit cigarettes and the potential for e-cigarettes to be a source of heat or an unstable e-cigarette battery to explode are all risks that could be present on your site and may significantly increase the likelihood of a fire.

When it comes to smoking, unless it’s explicitly part of the contract for the work or the site and suitably legally enforceable, you can’t stop it, especially with those who aren’t your staff.

If there’s a significant reason that there can’t be smoking on site, ensure that you have a contractual obligation for all workers, and that it’s legally enforceable.

It’s typically much easier to work with people that want to smoke than to try and ban them from smoking all together. Whether this is appropriate for the work site will depend on the risks present, and your organisational approach to fire safety.

Consider how you would safely allow smoking on site, such as an intrinsically safe smoking area where no sources of fuel are present or nearby.


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