Fire safety in an office

A guide to effective fire safety procedures in an office environment. Identifying hazards and risks in your office, what you need to do to make sure your staff and colleagues are safe, and how regularly you should perform fire safety risk assessments.

When we think of fire safety, the word ‘fire’ doesn’t necessarily conjure up the image of a busy office. Fires are things that start in kitchens, at barbecues, at firework displays and in working environments where sparks fly and machines burst with energy. The likelihood of a live flame being introduced to a workstation of computers and telephones is minimal.

But, even though the days of ashtrays and smoking rooms in office spaces are now behind us, the importance of fire safety is very much present. As day-to-day as the commute to work or the morning meeting, it is essential from the moment we clock in, to the end of the working day, as well as during out-of-hours.

A legal requirement for business or commercial property owners and office managers, it is also a fundamental aspect of staff wellbeing at all levels and in every department. The bigger the office and the workforce, the more complex the fire safety requirements become, but it is all part of the same legally responsible and legally enforceable set of regulations.

No matter how digital an office becomes, there is still likely to be an archive of paperwork, a number of workstations, a network of energy supplies and cables and a team of people. When electrical items, combustible materials and people combine, in any environment, the risk of fire always exists.

Working in an office does have many fire safety benefits, however. There’s likely to be a distinct lack of not just open flames, but also dangerous machinery and large volumes of flammable liquids or gases. Offices are also, usually, well-run workplaces that require a good amount of planning and organisation from either a manager or management team.

Your own experience may, of course, be slightly different – but, the more structure there is to the management of staff and working processes, the simpler it should be to implement solid fire safety practices. From the identification of appropriate equipment, to scheduling dates and times for fire drills, the same meticulous planning principles apply to fire safety as they do to many of the day-to-day activities within the office.

From the person legally responsible for implementing these measures, to the person or persons designated to maintaining them, a practical structure for practising fire safety in an office shouldn’t be hard to find. This will always begin with a fire safety risk assessment – a thorough search of the office to identify potential hazards and establish their level of risk.

From archives and waste paper to electrical equipment and cables, kitchen areas and facilities, desks and workstations, corridors and stairs – everywhere must be checked. Identifying hazards along the way, and evaluating whether they can be reduced or removed, this risk assessment must be carried out on a regular basis and its findings recorded in a logbook.

Just as you would with any other working process, ensuring that all staff are aware of how the fire safety risk assessment affects them is essential. Hazards can be reduced by explaining findings to team members, demonstrating fire safety standards, and including training in fire safety as part of ongoing staff development. E-learning is available to reinforce hazard awareness and identify risk, but teamwork exercises are also great for office staff.

This level of support alleviates concerns in office workers, promotes good housekeeping, stimulates team building and makes everyone more prepared to deal calmly and safely with an incident. Regularly performing fire drills at least once a year and testing the fire alarm system routinely should be standard practice in any office environment.

To help staff react in the event of an alarm or drill, a practical emergency plan and safe escape route must also be established. Any visual or audio impairments and any mobility needs must be considered and accounted for when you are planning for this. An agreed meeting point must be decided at a safe distance from the office, and the fire drill will give you an indication of whether your plans need altering.

During each risk assessment, all existing fire safety equipment needs to be tested. Any changes in the size or needs of the workforce, or the installation of new hardware, may require you to source new equipment. An extinguisher made for paper or cardboard fires is essential, as is one designed to douse dangerous electrical fires. If your office is regularly staffed by a small number of workers, it may be worth training everyone how to use the provided fire safety equipment, in case there is a fire.

If your office has five or more members of staff, yourself included, you are required to record the findings of each fire safety risk assessment in a logbook. If you are as meticulous and vigilant here as you would be with any other office routine, identifying hazards and areas for improvement while fulfilling your legal responsibility to record them will be straightforward.

As with any other type of business or commercial property, poorly planned fire safety procedures can result in office closures, fines to businesses and individuals, and even prison sentences. While losing track of fire safety procedures may well be accidental, It’s never great PR to be involved in these kinds of proceedings, and businesses often never recover.
The majority of people would be put off by a restaurant or takeaway that is found to be avoiding food safety practices, so consider how people might feel about your business after a fire safety notice is issued.

Below are a number of questions and answers that will help your office to process its fire safety procedures as efficiently as every other aspect of your business.

How should office staff be educated in fire safety?

As well as keeping all office workers updated with the findings from fire safety risk assessments, and seeing how they fare in fire drills, there are numerous ways staff can promote fire safety:

  • Safe housekeeping – the workstation of every member of the office is full of ignition sources and items that can fuel fire. Every post-it note on a monitor, and cable behind a desk, can burn or set alight. Waste paper for recycling, and empty boxes of office supplies, can quickly pile up and must be disposed of regularly. If it’s not necessary to leave computers on overnight, then don’t. It not only saves on electricity but also reduces the chance of electrical fires starting at any time.
  • Check your equipment – as well as turning it off regularly, make sure it’s working properly. Large, shared printers produce a great amount of heat and are filled with combustible paper, while personal computers can often be pushed to the limits by busy staff. Keep notes of manufacturer-recommended services and testing, and make this part of your fire safety risk assessment routine.
  • Promote cleanliness – most offices employ a cleaner, who may even do their job before or after regular working hours. Making their job easier also makes offices safer from the risk of fire. Asking staff to keep their workstations and break rooms clean reduces the risk of dangerous, greasy build-up in kitchen areas and cuts down on innocuous crumbs at desks. Most foodstuffs are distinctly combustible and can help fires to spread more quickly.
  • Communication is key – explain the findings of your fire safety risk assessments to staff at all levels. If your office has regular team meetings, bring them up here and listen to what others have to say. Assigning an appropriate, responsible person or persons for fire safety in the office is essential, but sharing part of that responsibility to everyone highlights its importance to all office workers.
  • Choose smoking areas carefully – it’s been more than a decade since office staff could smoke in the building, but catering for a mid-morning cigarette break can still be important. Simply telling them to go into the car park or across the road could impact the fire safety of other offices or commercial business. Choose a smoking point away from flammable or combustible materials, windows and – if possible – other offices.

Identifying ignition and fuel in the office

Fire is created when a source of fuel and ignition are combined with oxygen. Most sources of ignition in an office, we have already covered; malfunctioning or overheated electricals are the main culprits for which to look out. If you do encounter any scorch marks on furniture or fittings, however, or discoloured or charred electrical plugs, these could also indicate that a fire has nearly started, at some point, in these areas.

As well as the day-to-day debris of office life, there are a number of alternative fuel sources that you should look out for. Some monitor and keyboard wipes contain highly flammable chemicals, while even the dust that they remove can accumulate to dangerous levels when left to do so. Soft rubber mouse mats can burn quickly and release highly toxic fumes, and any photos, plants or curtains close to a workstation will be caught in a blaze.

Above and below us, also, are materials that fire sees simply as fuel. Anything polystyrene, including ceiling or carpet tiles, and any soft textiles, including furnishings, will burn if given the chance. Be extra vigilant when decorating the office for Christmas, as decorations hanging from one corner of the room to another can be swift, aerial pathways of destruction.

Ensure that sources of ignition are as far removed as possible from sources of fuel. In large, open-plan offices, consider extra fire doors, curtains and extinguishers. If your office staff are self-sufficient in their cleaning, keep all liquids and aerosols away from electrical equipment, and only use them when computers and printers are turned off and unplugged.

What if the office never closes?

If your business operates 24/7 like – for example – a call centre, there should be a designated person responsible for fire safety on staff at all times. Fire safety risk assessments should consider the number of staff working at different times of the day or night and any additional functions the staff perform, e.g. opening or sorting post and scanning documents.

While there may be a greater need for lighting for staff who work at night, emergency lighting in escape routes needs to be ready at all times. A corridor in the evening will still offer better visibility than a corridor filled with smoke during the day. Fire exits and lights along the planned escape route need to be fully functional, 24/7, regardless of office opening hours.

If fewer staff are present during certain hours, it is worth considering whether they can operate in one, or a reduced number of offices, for fire safety purposes. While a fully-functioning fire alarm system will alert everybody at the same time, this ensures better communication in the event of an emergency.

Be sure that, if different members of staff are performing fire safety risk assessments on different shifts, the findings are shared. While the hazards and risks identified during one shift may certainly be different than those found on another, it is best practice to centralise these essential safety communications wherever possible.

It could even be discovered that one shift is responsible for a hazard on the next, so keeping both day and night staff informed could help reduce hazards – as well as bickering between office workers. Just as co-operation and co-ordination are essential, day-to-day duties ensuring that an office is run smoothly, they are also fundamental elements of fire safety in any workplace.

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