Fire safety in the workplace

What you need to know about fire safety in the workplace. How it affects you as an employer or employee and what every business can do to reduce the risk of harm from fire.

Wondering who is responsible for fire safety in the workplace or what your legal duties and responsibilities are as a business owner or employee? While your part in the enforcement and implementation of relevant fire safety policies may differ, it’s important that you know everything you can on how to protect yourself at work.

Fire safety affects everyone in the workplace, whether you’re a regular fixture or occasional commuter to the building. If you’re an employer, owner, landlord, occupier
or anyone else with control of the premises, you are responsible for adhering to fire safety regulations and implementing them in your premises.

In the UK, different pieces of legislation apply to different parts of the country. In England and Wales, these regulations are set out in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. Separate fire service and fire safety legislation, including the Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006, cover Scotland – and, in Northern Ireland, the Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) were introduced in 2010.

Each piece of legislation applies to businesses operating in those areas and each one includes fundamental regulations for carrying out fire safety procedures in the workplace. As you will probably know, it is not optional to adhere to the details set out in these documents. It is a set of legal requirements that protect you, your business, your buildings and your people.

In principle, each piece of legislation requires a ‘Responsible Person’ – maybe you – to carry out a fire risk assessment. This means performing regular, thorough audits of your premises, determining any hazards or people at risk and assessing, reducing or eliminating the likelihood of their harm. If you have four or more other employees, a record must be kept of your findings during each fire risk assessment.

Workplaces of a certain size are likely to have a number of ‘Responsible Persons’, especially if employees come and go on a shift rota basis. Subsequently, the regular re-training of such staff must also be considered. Every employee responsible for fire safety must be confident in their own ability to conduct risk assessments, and guide other staff both in knowledge sharing and in the event of an incident.

Other workplaces, of course, may be shared by a number of different businesses. Usually, it is the responsibility of the property owner to ensure that fire safety regulations are complied with, but this could involve regular, reciprocal communication between several different parties. Ensuring that every employer and employee on the premises is aware of fire safety provisions and evacuation procedures is fundamental.

If you are an employee and unfamiliar with how the details above apply to your working day, you should highlight it at the next available opportunity. You could save your employer a great deal of trouble by mentioning this gap in your knowledge, as you will also remind them of their legal responsibilities as a business owner.

If you’ve missed your fire safety training because you are not permanently in the workplace, as can happen if you are – for instance – a sub-contractor or self-employed person, then you may not be the only one who needs retraining. The term ‘employee’, when applied to fire safety regulations, is used very broadly, but the ‘Responsible Person’ must ensure that everybody who works on the premises, at any time, is kept informed.

All staff should be given adequate fire safety training upon commencing their employment. They should also take regular ‘refresher’ training as appropriate, or whenever circumstances change which impact upon fire safety. This could include the installation of new equipment, use of new materials, a restructure of the workplace layout, and explanation of any new legislation that becomes fire safety law.

The essentials that all staff need to know include the following – which hazards have been identified, and their level of risk; what appropriate measures are in place to deal with them; who is/are the Responsible Person(s) within the workplace; and the plan in the event of an emergency, including the safe escape route and gathering point for all employees.

If all staff are regularly informed of these life-saving essentials, and fire drills are conducted as and when appropriate, the likelihood is that an incident will be dealt with swiftly, efficiently and safely. Extra consideration must, of course, be made for anybody with mobility needs, which should have already been established during the most recently conducted risk assessment.

When this process is carried out regularly and rigorously in your workplace, all of your employees or colleagues should be not only safe but fully equipped to respond to an emergency. Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen or how they might react in any given situation, but ensuring that fire safety regulations are implemented in the workplace is a legal responsibility designed to keep all of us safe.

How to identify and remove risk in the workplace

The first step is to be utterly scrupulous. Potentially, every piece of equipment, furniture, refuse, debris and material is at risk from fire – as is every member of staff. When you perform your fire safety risk assessment, be sure to consider every corner of the building and all of its contents.

Fire starts when heat (the source of ignition) comes into contact with fuel (which can be anything capable of burning) and oxygen (which is, of course, everywhere). Make a note of anything that could start a fire and anything that could burn, and consider their proximity to one another within the workplace.

Work out who is most at risk – especially considering any visitors or members of the public on the premises – and remember that children, the elderly and people with mobility needs are especially vulnerable. Establish whether you can reduce or remove risk in every instance and whether specialist equipment is required that could help you to do so.

If you are then as rigorous in your recording as you are in your assessment, you will be able to implement a practical, tangible plan of action to alleviate or eliminate risk. Ensure that your findings are shared – and even compared – if you operate in a shared workspace, and make a note of when you will repeat your fire safety investigations.

How regularly should I carry out a risk assessment, or retrain employees in fire safety?

This is dependent on a number of factors. If you have a new employee starting, then you should consider how this extra body, or person with new individual needs, will fit into your existing fire safety risk assessment. If it has been some time since you last performed a risk assessment, it could be time for a review.

As the employer or responsible person, it is already your duty to inform your new employee of a number of factors, including:

  • Your existing or updated fire risk assessment and safety policy
  • Fire procedures, frequency of testing and any scheduled fire drills
  • Location and type of existing alarms, fire doors, curtains or extinguishers
  • Means of escape and meeting point
  • Which members of staff are responsible for implementing fire safety policy

If, when you are considering any of the above points, you realise that they may require a review, it’s time to re-evaluate the fire safety needs of your workplace. Any time your business goes through significant growth (or the opposite), expands into additional workspaces or new buildings or installs new hardware or equipment, you will need to conduct a new fire safety risk assessment.

Regular checks must be made on all existing fire alarms, doors and equipment, and all findings need to be logged. You should also carry out at least one fire drill per year and record the results as part of your fire safety and evacuation plans. Noting all of this information is essential for planning future fire safety training and in case you are ever required to prove that you have acted to protect your business and employees.

What type of fire safety equipment do I need in my workplace?

The size of your business, and the industry you work in, will define many areas of your fire safety equipment needs. If your employees work in several offices joined by a number of corridors, you may require several fire doors or curtains, a network of fire alarms and emergency lighting, and several strategically placed fire extinguishers or blankets.

Even if you run just a small enterprise with only one office and adjoining kitchen and WC facilities, it is a legal requirement to have a fire detection system in place. The main variable in the type of equipment required in different workplaces is, as you can probably guess, the fire extinguisher.

Below is a quick guide to help you understand what your workplace will need when it comes to extinguishing fires:

  • Water-based fire extinguishers are suitable for dousing flames caused by solid combustibles such as wood, paper and textiles.
  • Foam fire extinguishers are ideal on solid combustibles, but are also highly effective on flammable liquid fires. The layer of foam helps to prevent re-ignition, after the initial fire has been extinguished.
  • CO2 fire extinguishers can also be used on flammable liquid fires, but are at their most effective on electrical fires.
  • Powder fire extinguishers offer excellent all-round protection and are the only effective solution to dealing with fires caused by flammable gas.
  • Wet chemical extinguishers are perfectly suited for kitchens, as they tackle oil-based fires very effectively.
  • Water mist extinguishers are relatively new and work on the basis of firstly cooling fire and then suffocating it, preventing re-ignition by applying microscopic particles of water. Where multiple fires have appeared, water mist is great at dealing with them.

The range and capabilities of the fire safety equipment you need should be established during your risk assessment. An essential part of establishing which types of equipment are needed is identifying who is responsible for using them. Every piece of equipment will come with guidelines on how and when it should be used, so ensure that training is given, if required, and reviewed in line with your fire safety policies.

What happens if fire safety regulations aren’t followed?

A valid question, but not one that should be asked in any other way than hypothetically! Local fire and rescue authorities regularly visit premises to check that fire prevention measures are appropriate (think of them as similar to school Ofsted inspectors, except for fire safety). Not only can they help you understand and comply with rules, they can take action if they find your own fire safety measures aren’t appropriate.

If this happens, depending on the perceived seriousness of the problems encountered, they may take other steps. They could give you an informal notice, suggesting safety measures to be implemented, or a formal notice, telling you specifically how to fix certain problems.

Other measures they make take include the following:

  • Issue of an alteration notice, given if your workplace premises have high safety risks or could encounter high safety risks if the premises change.
  • Issue of an enforcement notice, given in the event of a serious risk being identified that is not being dealt with. This will stipulate improvements that are required and when.
  • Issue of a prohibition notice, given when a premises has been identified that requires immediate attention. Access to the workplace can be either restricted or completely prohibited in this instance.

Any decision made by the fire and rescue authority can be appealed within 21 days at your local magistrates. However, it’s best practice to remember that not following fire safety regulations can mean not having a workplace to operate in. Penalties of up to £5,000 can be issued to businesses or individuals, and major penalties carry an unlimited fine and up to 2 years in prison.

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