01 December 2017
Hasan Alaradi shares a practical approach to fire safety and explores five key steps to creating a suitable risk assessment.
THERE ARE practical and reasonable actions that could and should be taken to prevent a fire starting, yet we ignore them, potentially making our workplaces and our homes places of high fire risk.
This fire risk needs to be reduced in three different ways. Firstly, the fire should be prevented from starting in the first place by avoiding the three elements of the fire triangle (fuel, oxygen, ignition) being present together in certain conditions where they are liable to start a fire.
Secondly, we can reduce the consequences of fire by taking steps to contain it, if one should break out, limiting its ability to spread. Thirdly, we do our best to provide the means to improve the safety of occupants by early detection of fire, informing them at the same time and making their evacuation to a safe place away from the fire as prompt and as easy as possible.
Looking at the huge amount of fires that take place very year, I wonder why we have allowed them to start. Why have we not built our workplaces to stop the rapid spread of these fires? Why have we failed to evacuate the occupants? Why did we allow such large numbers of lives to be lost? The answer to all these questions is that fire safety is too important a matter to be left to the engineers.
This argument is based on an inaugural lecture given by Professor Richard Booth, Head of Department of Safety and Hygiene, University of Aston, UK, published on 22 February 1979, entitled ‘Safety: too important a matter to be left to the Engineers?’
In this lecture, Professor Booth acknowledged that engineers play a vital role in accident prevention, but that many fatal and serious accidents that still occur are attributable, in part, to errors by engineers that could, and should, be prevented.
The Professor stressed that his choice of subject is not based on any belief that engineers are more prone to mistakes, or more open to criticism, than other professional groups. The argument here is that safety is too important a matter to be left to any key professional group, whether engineers, doctors, chemists, psychologists, lawyers or accountants.
I am focusing here on one issue that could save many of the lives that are lost worldwide every day with very little effort required to implement basic fire safety standards. Fire risk assessment will help achieve higher fire safety standards and is legally required for all workplaces.
Getting it right
In Bahrain, where I live, the government issued a ministerial order in 2005 after a loss of 11 lives in a small building used for labourers’ accommodation. RRC Middle East offered a three-day workshop to train fire specialists and those with legal responsibilities on how to conduct an effective fire risk assessment.
Although the demand for the training was great at the time, people are human and have short memories, and unless they get reminded by repeated fires, actions will remain disproportionate to the size of the problem.
A fire risk assessment should be used as a basis for the development of any fire safety management system. It is also very important not to ignore the human factors and the importance of taking into consideration how individuals behave in the face of danger.
Fire safety could very well be summarised into two categories of actions – fire prevention and fire control. These start with a safe design for the intended use of the facility or building, followed by the development of a management system to maintain all intended design features and ensure that safety systems continue to be functional and effective.
A well-established and practised emergency response system, which ensures that failures are not leading to disastrous results and activates a set of actions to save lives and minimise losses, should follow this.
But before we even start designing the building or developing the management system, an adequate and suitable fire risk assessment must be conducted to identify fire hazards and evaluate the risk, in order to form the base of knowledge essential in designing an effective fire safety system.
According to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, a fire risk assessment is: “an organised and methodical look at your premises, the activities carried on there and the likelihood that a fire could start and cause harm to those in and around the premises.”
Fire safety risk assessments are carried out in order to eliminate or reduce the risk of harm from fire in the workplace by:
- Identifying fire hazards in the workplace;
- Identifying who is at risk;
- Evaluating the level of risk;
- Deciding what further measures to take to remove hazards and control risk; and
- Implementing those measures.
The three main reasons for assessing and managing fire risk are to prevent harm to people. There is a moral duty on employers to take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and health of their employees, and others. Also, to comply with the law as employers have legal obligations regarding fire safety which, if unfulfilled, may give rise to severe penalties. And finally, minimise the costs of fires in the workplace as most businesses that suffer a major fire do not fully recover from its effects.
The process of fire safety risk assessment follows the standard five-step approach to risk assessment. Firstly, you have to identify fire hazards, which includes sources of ignition, fuel and oxygen. Fire hazards can be identified using the following methods:
- Inspection – a form of active monitoring, involving the examination of premises, plant and equipment and the way in which they are used;
- Job/task analysis – a systematic analysis of a work activity to identify the hazards
- Legislation – information about hazards and risks may be contained in the legal requirements that apply to the workplace or to specific jobs;
- Manufacturers’ information and Safety Data Sheets - contain important, relevant information;
- Incident data (fire-related injuries, ill health, near-misses) – provides information about the fire hazards that caused the occurrence.
The second step is to identify risks to people in and around premises or people who are especially at risk. Those most at risk from fire include operatives directly involved with the activity or working nearby. This may include skilled workers, trainees or young or new workers. Maintenance staff, who may work under very different conditions from those that apply during normal operations and so face different hazards
Cleaners, who may be unaware of the safety measures associated with particular hazards in an area and working outside normal hours. Cleaning operations also present their own hazards. Also contractors who may not be fully aware of all the hazards or control procedures at the workplace in which they are working. As such, the assessment should consider any additional measures that will provide them with the same level of protection as employees
In addition, visitors unlikely to be aware of the hazards or control measures at the workplace they are visiting and the same goes for members of the public, who may be affected by different hazards from those that affect. Children on the premises need special consideration as do young persons as they are often inexperienced, lack training, and perhaps give insufficient attention to safety. A fire situation that could be dealt with effectively by experienced adults could well be an increased risk to young persons.
Step three is to evaluate, remove, reduce and protect from risk. This means you need to evaluate the risk of a fire occurring, evaluate the risk to people from fire and remove or reduce fire hazards. These risks can be reduced or removed by installing detection and warning systems, the of firefighting equipment, clearly accessible escape routes, presence of emergency lighting and signage. All of these most be properly maintained.
Fire risk is best evaluated in two ways, the risk of fire breaking out and the risk of people being harmed in a fire. Factors that can increase the likelihood of fires starting include poor housekeeping allowing combustibles to accumulate, poor storage and inadequate segregation of incompatible materials, poorly maintained equipment, smoking, inappropriate management of building alterations, use of portable heating appliances, and poor security to protect against arson.
Step four is to record significant findings and action taken. You must prepare a fire emergency plan and inform and instruct the relevant people. Where needed adequate training should also be provided. The final step is to keep the risk assessment under review and revise it when necessary.
Fire safety is not merely a matter of good design, though this, if done correctly, will help to prevent injury and loss of life. Fire safety requires a mix of good design, adequate and suitable fire risk assessment, measures to prevent a fire starting, measures to mitigate the consequences of a fire taking place, the competent giving of information to people about emergencies, and the provision of safe evacuation processes.
All this should be developed and practised with a very clear perception of how people could behave in the event of emergencies in mind.