Fire safety in construction

If you are looking to work in construction or you already have a job on a construction site, it is important that you know about fire safety in construction. Construction comes with many risks, and it is essential that you are aware of the dangers and what to do if there is a fire.

Construction can be a rewarding yet very taxing occupation. Each year, many construction workers lose their lives or are injured as a result of their work. Others suffer from illnesses related to working in construction, such as asbestosis and dermatitis, while others may even suffer from occupational deafness.

That said, such hazards are not only restricted to those working on site, as members of the public are also at risk if construction activities are not controlled appropriately. Properties next to construction sites may also be damaged and their occupants put at risk, particularly if there is a fire. Thankfully, there are strong policies in place relating to fire safety, and it is wise to read up on fire safety in construction.

We have compiled a guide on fire safety in construction and answered some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding the topic.

  1. Who is responsible for fire safety on a construction project?A. Often, a range of people hold duties relating to fire safety on a construction site. Under the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015, designers, principal designers, clients, contractors and construction workers are all held to legal duties to eliminate risks relating to fire. The responsible person is defined under the Fire Safety Order 2005 and holds specific duties to fire safety.

Legal requirements

In regards to building sites, any measures that need to be taken in relation to fire safety are defined under the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015. This regulation asks that suitable and sufficient steps are taken to prevent the risk of injury from fire or explosion.

It also requires that, where necessary, in the interests of the health and safety of those working on site, there are appropriate arrangements in place in case an emergency ever was to arise – with a suitable evacuation method an integral part of those arrangements.

It is the duty of the principal contractor to ensure that fire risk assessments are carried out in line with the relevant fire safety legislation. Owing to the Fire Safety Order 2005 (FSO), the Fire Risk Assessment was introduced. The FSO provides protocol for fire safety in all buildings, excluding single private dwellings only. When it comes to construction sites, the FSO is enforced by the Health and Safety Executive.

Hazards of construction sites

Ignition and fuel sources are the two areas where management at the site can enforce control.

  • What are the fire hazards on a construction site? 

A. For a fire to be able to start, a source of ignition and a source of fuel and oxygen are needed.

  • What is classed as a source of ignition? 

A. Sources of ignition include naked flames, hot workings, heaters, lighting and electrical equipment.

  • What is a source of fuel on a construction site? 

A. Sources of fuel you are likely to find on site include materials such as wood, paper, plastic, rubber, liquefied petroleum gas, waste rubbish and loose packaging materials, furniture and acetylene. Also included are flammable liquids, i.e. petrol and paint.

How to contain fire hazards

Combustible materials should only be used on site when absolutely necessary or if they are specifically designed for high-risk sites. Various flammable materials are likely to be stored and used on site – including scaffolding boards and sheeting, temporary covering materials and anything that has been removed from the site and bagged as waste.

The control of such combustible materials is essential to site safety, and under no circumstances should materials exceed the qualities required for a day’s work. When storing items that are combustible, there should be a gap of six to ten metres between any fuel packages. A stack of wood may seem difficult to ignite – but, if it is wrapped in flammable packaging or close to waste, the potential to ignite the stack is dangerously high.

Even combustible materials which have been tested and marked as suitable for use should only be stored on site in limited amounts. Any preparation of the materials should be carried out away from the site. Materials that must be marked as fire-retardant include protective covering for floors, temporary coverings and timber scaffold boards.

It is likely that fuel is required when it comes to hot cutting or plant. This can be in the form of liquid fuel or flammable gases. The site manager is responsible for managing the fuel and should oversee the procuring of the correct fuel, its use and any operations that are deemed hazardous, such as refuelling.

Any waste on construction sites should be minimised when possible and disposed of as soon as possible. Packaging and waste materials from construction work should be disposed of daily, and the site administrators should check areas for effective disposal, as a waste management plan should be in place for the site.

Plastic containers for waste are a huge no, as metal containers should always be used instead. Cleaning rags used for clearing up oily deposits should be disposed of immediately.

Ignition risks

There are several ignition risks at any construction site. As construction involves working with heat, great care should be taken. “Hot works” are processes which involve generating heat with a naked flame, sparks, electrical arc, or the use of bitumen boilers or grinding. Usually, cutting operations utilise open flame gas cutting equipment or disc cutting; thus, acetylene should not be permitted on site unless it is essential.

Due to the hazardous nature of using “hot works” close to flammable material, combustible items should be removed prior to any hot work commencing – and, if this is not suitable, any combustible items should be made wet.

For all hot workings, hot work permits should be used, as this helps to ensure that those working in restricted areas are aware of the dangers involved. To confirm that a safe work system is in place prior to any hot work commencing, formal checks are undertaken.

Generally, this safe work system involves a cooling-down or fire watch period following any hot work; such areas must also be monitored during breaks.

Electrical faults pose a huge fire risk in any place, not least construction sites. Construction involves both fixed electrical systems and portable equipment; hence, sites will have a combination of fixed electrical wiring from mains sources, as well as electricity generated from a mobile power generator.

Regardless of the electrical source, each installation must be tested, inspected and then commissioned before it is suitable for use. Portable Appliance Testing must be carried out under the Health and Safety Executive guidelines, while any tests will help minimise any risk of an electrical fault causing a fire to break out.

Portable heaters should only be used where absolutely necessary – and, when in use, they should be placed under the same category as hot work. An assessment should be made to ensure that the heater and its desired location are suitable. It should go without saying that the most hazardous types of portable heaters should be avoided.

Temporary lighting and lamps are often necessary on construction sites. Hazards from such types of lighting arise when the light source is placed too close to combustible items, broken lamp units are placed where hot surfaces are exposed, or lamps are not allowed to cool properly.

Due to such risks, any light fixtures should be secured well away from any combustible materials. It is important that workers responsible for maintaining the lightning know that different operating voltages cannot be interchanged and those not fitted with a bulb should be disregarded.

Like other electrical equipment, light units should be inspected regularly, and any that are damaged ought to be removed instantly. Halogen and halide lights are not permitted, as they operate at very high temperatures.

Smoking is prohibited on construction sites for a reason, and any smoking areas should be located a safe distance from the main work site and offices.

Fire detection and alarms

There are strict measures in place in case a fire ever breaks out on a construction site. On the smallest of sites, raising the alarm by shouting ‘fire’ may be sufficient, but for larger sites, there must be a full fire detection and interconnected alarm system.

The cornerstone of fire safety on construction sites is the inclusion of call points and sounders, otherwise known as site alarms. On larger or high-risk sites where fire has the potential to grow undetected, fire detectors are essential. It is also important to remember that, as the site grows, the fire alarm system may need to be modified.

  • How can a fire on a construction site be prevented?

A. Consider the sources of ignition that have been discussed and air necessary caution. Ensure that the site is secure; especially at night and weekends in high-risk areas, it is wise to have intruder alarms in place. A security patrol can be used if necessary. The storage of materials and waste on site should be reduced in accordance with regulations and kept in designated secure areas.

The principal contractor must include fire safety and emergency procedures when they draw up a construction phase plan. The plan must include suitable arrangements for dealing with any possible emergency. It must ensure that exit routes are clearly indicated, there is a sufficient number of emergency routes, and they are kept free from obstruction at all times. Where necessary, firefighting equipment and detection systems must be installed, and workers should be instructed in the correct use of this equipment.

  • What is needed in the event of a fire?

A. The general fire precautions need to be considered at the design stage of the site and amended when needed throughout the development of the project. The ever-changing nature of construction work should be considered, and the fire safety equipment and regulations provided will depend on the level of risk. Sites with timber frames and multiple storeys will require more precautions.

In the event of a fire, measures will include following the emergency plan, raising the alarm, following any escape routes or fire exits, containing the fire by compartmentalising and, if it is safe to do so, fighting the fire.

  • What firefighting equipment should be kept on a construction site?

A. Multiple types of extinguishers should be kept on site. Foam, dry water mist or dry powder extinguishers should be used for flammable liquids, but it is important to avoid using these Class B extinguishers inside unless necessary.

CO2, dry water mist and dielectrically tested foams should be used to extinguish flames stemming from an electrical appliance. For wood, paper, card and similar materials, Class A extinguishers are safe to use. This includes water, foam and dry water mist. Multipurpose extinguishers are available, but the ratings must be examined before use.

Christmas period

During 2018, there has been a steady increase in the need for short-term cover across multiple platforms. It has also been increasingly noticed that companies are requesting cover for over the Christmas period and the New Year.

With an upturn in the market, it is great news for the construction industry, as it means that there is no need for any projects to stall. However, any temporary and new workers should be instructed on the fire safety protocol associated with working on a construction site, while existing workers should be reminded of that protocol.

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