Construction sites are extremely high-risk areas for various types of fire. That’s because you’re more than likely to find all three elements of the fire triangle – heat, fuel and an oxidising agent – present at most times. Earlier this year, Construction News obtained statistics from the Home Office to reveal the total number of fires on construction sites across England appears to be rising, with a 22% increase between 2013 and 2017.
When fire breaks out in this setting, the results can be catastrophic with damage to valuable materials, severe project delays and – worst case scenario – serious injury or loss of life. That’s why it’s so important to understand common fire hazards on site and current legislation to help those responsible for safety. Here, we take a look at the main considerations for protecting all site workers and discuss why it’s vital hazards are anticipated – and precautionary measures put in place – as early as the design stage of the project.
Regulations, roles and responsibilities
The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) define duties and actions and ensure all potential health and safety issues are considered to reduce the risk of harm to all working on the build. The regulations state that ‘suitable and sufficient steps must be taken to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, the risk of injury to a person during the carrying out of construction work arising from fire or explosion’.
Fire safety should be considered and managed from the earliest design stages of a project and the risk to site workers and site neighbours mitigated. It’s the responsibility of the principal contractor on site to put thorough fire risk assessments in place according to legislation in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) in England and Wales, the Fire Safety (Scotland) Act in Scotland and the Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland). Meanwhile, the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) requires employers to control the risks to safety from fire and explosions. Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) is used widely in construction and is thought to be the largest single contributor to the risk of fire in these settings. In its Fire Safety in Construction guidance, the Health and Safety Executive recommends taking various precautions with LPG, including checking all cylinders and fittings before use and turning off cylinder valves before connecting or disconnecting equipment.
Anticipating hazards and protecting against them
Fuel sources are everywhere on construction sites – from waste materials to discarded timber and flammable gases and liquids – so it’s important to take steps to eliminate any risk early and then continually throughout the project. Dispose of packaging and waste materials quickly and regularly, for example. Identify possible sources of heat early – naked flames, faulty electrical equipment and even workers’ cigarettes – and raise awareness. Fuel management is the responsibility of the site manager, who must oversee the whole process from purchase to usage and arranging replacement fuel.
Over the last few years, there’s been a worrying rise in deliberately started fires on construction sites. Of an evening, these sites are deserted premises and seemingly tempting to arsonists so corners shouldn’t be cut when it comes to security. Guards can prove invaluable investment for protection of a site but there are ways to ensure fire extinguishers remain in top working order and aren’t vulnerable to vandalism. Cabinets – many lockable – can house one or two extinguishers and provide peace of mind they’re stored safely and reduce the risk of spillages, tampering, corrosion and knocks and bumps.
Take a thorough, critical look at the project, consider where accidents may happen and make every effort to remove these hazards or reduce them. However, should the worst happen and a fire break out, it’s required that every step is taken to protect people and provide a means of escape. All users of the site should be made aware of how they can raise the alarm if a fire does break out.
In the event of an emergency
As with any other setting, users of the area must all be made aware of plans and tasks should a fire break out. Everyone should be clear on escape routes, fire exits and assembly points. Emergency signage is crucial in helping people off the site and directing them to safety. Site workers should be aware of the location of fire extinguishers to aid their escape – the type of fire extinguisher will be determined by the nature of the potential fire. Because any of the main types of fire - solid materials, liquids, gases, metals and electrical - can occur on a construction site and risks and hazards change frequently, it’s not always straightforward. This is where the results of the fire risk assessment come in - every construction site is different and should be assessed in terms of the project and work carried out there. Fire extinguisher trolleys are particularly useful in this environment given the need for a mobile fire point. They provide a convenient and easily accessible means of storage for fire safety equipment, protecting workers as well as the site. They’re lightweight and can be moved around as the project progresses.
A construction project is a vast, complex and evolving beast, meaning that by its very nature it brings a multitude of risks that change with every phase. With careful planning and the right fire safety provisions, site workers (and neighbouring people) can be confident risk has been reduced as much as is practicably possible.
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