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Remedies for Renovation

02 October 2020

Fires impacting refurbishment projects, such as the catastrophic blaze that broke out at the Notre Dame Cathedral in April last year, remain at the forefront of people’s minds as a direct result of the myriad news headlines they generate. Here, Tony Obadipe outlines the key issues to think about in terms of fire safety regimes for building and refurbishment projects

DUE TO the sometimes unstable environments that can be encountered on building refurbishment projects, fire episodes can be much larger when compared to those that occur in other settings, meaning that the damage wrought is usually more extensive and costly. However, those present on site may help mitigate such risks by keeping up-to-date on the factors that can increase the threat of fire, while also abiding by safer ways of working. 

Refurbishment work plays a key part in the growth and maintenance of the UK’s infrastructure, from properties that need to be made safe again after falling into disrepair through to developing additional structures designed to house and sustain the population. Although essential, these projects can come with a high risk of fire if the correct safety measures are not observed.

Unfortunately, when incidents do occur, they offer a stark reminder of the dangers at hand. Take, for example, the Camden Town nightclub Koko that suffered damage due to fire back in January. The building, which began life as the Camden Theatre in 1900 before later being renamed as Camden Palace, was closed for major refurbishment work to be carried out and, consequently, ‘clad’ in scaffolding and tarpaulins. Sixty firefighters from the London Fire Brigade fought the blaze which destroyed the dome atop Koko’s iconic roof. Billionaire Elisabeth Murdoch is bankrolling the restoration project. 

The volatility of refurbishment environments is no surprise given the frequent need for the storage and use of combustible materials, as well as the potential for large amounts of people to be present on site at any one time. It’s expected that construction sites will see the comings and goings of various trades in the form of installers, contractors and engineers, all of whom will have varying degrees of fire safety training. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of a given project’s duty holders, across all parties, to ensure the site is operating as safely as possible and the correct precautions are in place for a safe build.

Dangers on site 

When seeking to begin reducing fire risks, it’s first important to ascertain why fires occur so frequently in refurbishment projects and why these are such high-risk environments. Ultimately, this comes down to the amount of ‘hot work’, such as welding, soldering and flame-cutting, which is commonly transacted on renovation projects. All pose a danger through the use of open flames, the application of heat or friction or processes that generate sparks. 

While these methods are needed for some crucial elements of the construction process, they can increase the risk of fire if safety measures are lax when specialist tools are being deployed. 

The same hazards come with flammable materials that are regularly used and stored throughout renovation projects. Even everyday materials, such as insulation or timber, are volatile enough to cause serious damage if not treated with care. This is particularly true while work is taking place as materials can be left exposed, meaning that the risk of combustion is higher. 

In addition, temporary lighting and heating is needed for sites operating through colder months – or when contractors are working through the night – and can pose safety risks when located too close to combustible items as their surfaces are capable of generating large amounts of heat. Once the works are near completion, the risks are just as high when soft furnishings are brought into the space. This only serves to increase the potential danger.

People may also play their part in increasing on-site fire risks. For instance, construction sites are fast-paced and busy environments whereby individuals sometimes have to work in confined spaces, in turn meaning that accidents can be more likely. If a specific project is under tight time constraints, workers might resort to carrying out tasks in a rushed manner, thereby increasing the potential risk of a serious accident or fire. 

On that basis, it’s vital that workers are careful around one another as well as around potentially hazardous equipment to help mitigate such dangers. Taking the time to carry out tasks with care and making the effort to check that materials and tools are stored safety, both throughout the day and also during those hours when the site is unoccupied, are easy safety measures to incorporate into a site’s ways of working.

Finally, it’s also true to state that fires can be started deliberately on construction sites which are often deemed prime targets for vandalism and arson attacks. On that basis, strict monitoring of premises is needed to prevent such occurrences. 

Minimising the risk

There are various processes that duty holders can put in place to help minimise the risk of fire in renovation projects. They begin with the introduction of a more flexible schedule of work. As unnecessary errors can occur as a result of rushed work, relaxing the project timescales to accommodate for delays will help ease the chances of mistakes or the use of dangerous practices. Not only does this help to create a safer working environment, but it will also provide the end client with realistic timings for the project while avoiding the need for awkward conversations regarding additional costs due to delays. 

Appropriate pricing also ties into this as businesses that undercut their costs in order to win the tender attempt to compensate for the losses by asking their employees to work faster and longer. However, that isn’t a safe or a sustainable way of working and this, too, can increase the chances that errors or accidents will arise. 

Ultimately, investing in reliable life safety solutions will provide the best line of defence against fires in refurbishment projects. Despite this, such technology is used infrequently in these environments due to their temporary and ever-changing nature, as well as the vagueness of regulations. 

On that note, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (England and Wales) specify the safety measures for construction sites, the former setting out the considerations for fire safety arrangements, while the latter identifies precisely who’s responsible for the enforcement. 

Although these regulations are much needed, there’s a lack of technical specification regarding what life safety devices should be used. For example, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005’s Regulation 13 states the following: “Where necessary in order to preserve the safety of relevant persons, the ‘Responsible Person’ must ensure that the premises are, to the extent that it is appropriate, equipped with appropriate firefighting equipment and with fire detectors and alarms.”

Similarly, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015’s Regulation 29 ambiguously requires 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 (a) fire or explosion (b) flooding or (c) any substance liable to cause asphyxiation.” 

In place of hardwired life safety systems, rotary bells are often employed as a substitute signalling system whereby a member of the team will use the bell to warn others on site of a potential fire outbreak. However, this means that, once the team members have left the site, there’s no system in place to correctly signal if there’s a fire, once again leaving the building exposed. 

Fire safety solutions

For this reason, installing flame detectors is a much more effective way in which to ensure that projects are well defended (one such device being Hochiki’s DRD-E conventional flame detector). Flame detectors are ideal for use on refurbishment sites as they’re designed to detect flames in internal spaces. When installed on-site, such devices work in a similar manner to a point detector, but detect flickering flames rather than smoke.

When specifying solutions for larger refurbishment projects, choosing a device that offers versatility while upholding reliability is the key. This is something that wireless point detectors, such as Hochiki’s FIREwave, can offer. Wireless detectors afford total flexibility as they can be placed temporarily in areas undergoing construction and then easily removed and replaced with a more permanent system once building work is completed. 

This capability means that, due to a simple installation process that eliminates the need for hardwiring or cabling, wireless systems may be seamlessly and quickly relocated to defend other areas if required. Installers can therefore overcome the challenges of the most demanding sites. Some systems also offer expandable capabilities, meaning that they can be configurable to a wide range of applications, from small renovation projects right through to large-scale developments.

Ultimately, by installing effective and reliable fire safety solutions such as flame or wireless point detectors, duty holders are able to protect refurbishment sites from the common pitfalls of unsafe working procedures and flammable materials. That said, life safety devices cannot do all the work. It’s also crucial to manage projects effectively by avoiding rushed tasks and educating workers on the inherent dangers involved as well as the correct practices that should be followed at all times. 

If appropriate measures are taken then the safety of the building and the workers within can be upheld while the project is completed in both a safe and timely manner.

Tony Obadipe is Regional Sales Manager at Hochiki Europe (www.hochikieurope.com)