Perhaps the foremost duty of every employer is to ensure that their employees are safe while on the company’s premises. There are obvious reasons that this might be desirous, but there are also knock-on effects, too; improvements made to safety will not only directly reduce the likelihood of an accident – they’ll also yield increases in a workforce’s morale and therefore productivity. Or, to put it another way, it’s a great deal easier to concentrate on your work when you can’t smell gas.
One of the most egregious threats to workplace safety is that posed by fire. Let’s not mince words – fire is serious business. It’s something which, if left unchecked, can quickly spread through a building, causing massive damage to property inflicting either an agonising death or injury upon anyone unfortunate enough to be consumed by it.
Fortunately, this eventuality is becoming increasingly rare. Figures released by the London Fire Brigade this year suggest that the number of fire-related deaths suffered in the capital has fallen by half in the past five years. This improvement forms part of a nationwide (and to some extent worldwide) trend in fire safety and is thanks to technological advances, in the form of better fire extinguishers and suppressors, alarms and flame-retardant building materials. But more so, it’s thanks to improvements in education and basic safety standards too. In this article, we’ll go over some of the ways in which fire can be safeguarded against using just a few basic tips.
The responsible person
The government’s guidelines on fire safety designate the ‘owner, landlord or occupier of business or other non-domestic premises’ as the ‘responsible person’. This is the person whose responsibility it is to ensure the safety of the premises and its occupants from fire.
If this is you, then you’ve already taken a worthwhile first step by reading this article. Let’s take a look at some of the things you must do:
As might be obvious, the first thing to do when improving the safety of a building is to establish exactly how safe it already is and to identify some of the ways in which that level of safety can be improved upon. Only then can we actually take those steps. In the case of fire safety, this means searching for places where a fire might potentially start.
This search is called a risk assessment and, if your company employs more than five people, you’re obliged to keep a written record of it. It consists of a few simple steps.
Let’s take a moment to review some rudimentary science. In order for a fire to start, a source of fuel must come into contact with a source of ignition (or heat) in the presence of oxygen (which for the purposes of simplicity we’ll take as a given).
Anything which might provide a source of ignition might be considered a hazard. This includes heaters, lights, lighters, welding or grinding equipment and anything else which can get hot, or produce sparks. This might include the static spark which can result from sitting in a car for a long period of time and then touching it after getting out – if you happen to be filling up your car at a petrol station, this can be bad news. Make a note of any potential sources of ignition you find in your premises.
We must also consider potential sources of fuel. This might include waste paper, cardboard and the wood present in the structure of the building itself, as well as more obvious fuel sources like petrol, diesel and white spirit. Again, you’ll need to make a note of any you find on the premises. Be sure to also account for the exterior of your building, as roofing materials can sometimes be flammable.
It is also important to consider the people who would be most at risk in the event of a fire. Some of these people might be at greater risk than others, and part of the risk assessment is to identify them. If some people aren’t familiar with the premises, like visitors and customers, they will be less well-equipped to deal with a fire, should one arise. This is especially so for those who are less physically capable – such as small children, the elderly and the disabled.
Evaluate and act
Next we must consider what we’ve learned and take action accordingly. Of course, this action will depend upon the discoveries you’ve made, but generally speaking this means keeping fuel sources separate from ignition sources, and ensuring that everyone is informed of what to do in the event of a fire. You might do this using well-placed signs in order to inform people of where the fire exits are and, if necessary, installing new fire-detection and warning systems. Again, you should make a note of any action you’ve taken.
In particular, two forms of action are hugely useful in minimizing the likelihood of a fire:
Fire fighting equipment
Fires escalate quickly. In the UK, a fire engine can arrive at a premises within ten minutes – but this is more than enough time for a small blaze to grow into a catastrophic one. For this reason, it’s incredibly useful to have proper fire-fighting equipment to hand and to be trained in its use, so that the fire can be combated as soon as it is encountered.
One of the most important duties of the responsible person is to ensure that this equipment is regularly tested and kept in good working order. This might mean putting up a regular checklist which must be signed off as the equipment is tested.
It’s worth also noting that certain sorts of fire extinguishers are designed to combat certain sorts of fires. They are colour-coded for the removal of doubt, and a fire-safety course will cover these codes in detail. If your risk assessment should reveal an abundance of a certain sort of fuel, then you should buy the appropriate sort of fire-extinguisher.
Fire drills and training
The faithful fire drill is one of the most widely-known tools in the fight against fire. They should be conducted regularly – at least one every year – in order to ensure that your staff are adequately trained in procedure. If the drill should reveal any problems, then these problems can then be addressed using training.
It’s an excellent idea to make a plan surrounding how fire might be prevented and to share (or, better yet, devise) this plan with your staff. You should come to an understanding of well how well-versed your staff are in fire safety and provide training accordingly. This means regular fire drills, but it also means nominating staff to put more specific fire-prevention measures into place.
If you have short-term staff working in your building, it is important that you bring them up to speed with your plan as soon as possible. Businesses with a high turnover of short-term staff may wish to conduct these training sessions more frequently, in order to keep the risks as small as possible.
It’s also wise to consider your neighbours. If other businesses share a building with you, or are situated nearby, it is advisable that you consult with them and included them in your plan. After all, an uncontrolled fire which engulfs one business is likely to also engulf the other, and so co-operation can make a huge difference.
Finally, it’s also worth performing a risk assessment on your risk assessment. If your circumstances have changed since the last assessment, then these changes must be accounted for. If you’ve made significant changes to the building or its contents, then this might be grounds for an accordingly significant overhaul of your risk-assessment procedure. It might be that you’ve actually experienced a fire and that your warning systems have been put to the test.
Whatever the case might be, it’s worth reviewing your assessment regularly in order to account for these changes. This will help to give your business and its staff the best possible protection against fire.
What might happen if I don’t perform these steps?
The consequences of not conforming to these procedures, suffice to say, could be disastrous. For this reason, fire and rescue authorities have the power to visit your premises in order to check that an appropriate fire risk assessment is in place. They’ll be able to advise you of the rules, and help you to come into line with them. If you’re falling shy of the requirements, they might issue an informal notice – which will consist basically of a chat.
They might also issue a formal notice. This can take the form of either an alterations notice, which mandates that you make alterations to your premises; an enforcement notice, which will give you a limited time-frame in which to correct a more serious risk in your premises; or a prohibition notice, which will close off access to your premises.
Major infractions can bring about unlimited fines and two-year prison stretches, and so it’s important to make sure that you follow the instructions of your local authority and take fire safety in general seriously. It’s quite literally a matter of life and death!