Fire at the workplace may result in death, burns, smoke inhalation and many other devastating health consequences for employees and clients/customers. It could also be detrimental for the financial survival of the business with severe damage to property and stock as well as potential liability claims if negligence is found.The good news is that few business fires can be described as an “Act of God” and they are mostly preventable. Businesses have a duty of care obligation to their employees. This legal and moral responsibility requires that employers do everything within their power to keep their people out of harm’s way.It is important for business owners/ managers to understand the industry-specific fire risks for the place of business, guard against these risks and maintain a safe work environment.

Reasons for Fires Igniting at the Workplace

Faulty electrical equipment

  • This is widely recognized as the single biggest contributor to workplace fires.
  • Loose wires, overloaded plugs and faulty connections can all result in dangerous electrical fires.
  • These fires can happen anywhere – at offices, workshops, warehouses etc.
  • During tough economic conditions, many business owners delay expenditures on replacing worn-out equipment, thereby increasing these risks!

Fires where “Hot Work” is taking place

  • Hot work often arises from construction and/ or maintenance activities.
  • This is work that might generate sufficient heat, sparks or flame to cause a fire.
  • It includes welding, flame-cutting, soldering, brazing, grinding and other equipment incorporating a flame, e.g. tar boilers, etc.

Flammable and Combustible Materials

  • Improper storage of these materials is a common contributor to workplace fires.
  • These often occur in workshops and garages as sparks from circular saws and similar tools can set light to nearby flammable materials. In certain spaces, these might include materials such as flammable chemicals, or oil barrels.
  • Warehouses are known to be at a particularly high risk of fire due to the large quantities of stock and materials they often hold (paper, for example).
  • A fire can be very easily started from combustible materials, with even the slightest source of ignition
  • Fuel for fire consists of flammable material. Flammable material is material that burns readily in a normal atmosphere and includes flammable liquids (e.g. petrol), flammable gasses (e.g. propane and butane) and flammable solids (e.g. charcoal, paper).

Lack of staff training

  • Accidents may occur – But should be viewed as sudden unforeseen events.
  • When staff is not effectively trained in the workplace, perfectly serviceable equipment might burn out or certain materials might turn out to be suddenly flammable.
  • A lack of training results in human error contributing to fires at the workplace/ business.

Lack of resources and equipment in place

  • A small spark or flame may lead to a devastating fire where a business neglects to keep on the premises the materials needed to quickly extinguish such a fire.
  • Prevention is key, and that means investing in the resources that are specifically designed to keep people safe.

Arson

  • It might sound alarming but up to 45% of all serious fires in the UK (to both homes and business) are believed to be caused by arson.
  • In South Africa, businesses are often threatened by protestors, rioters and other types of criminality.

How to Prevent Fires at the Workplace / Business

Cleanliness and Good Housekeeping

  • There are many other reasons than esthetics and a professional “look” to keep your business environment clean!
  • Clutter contributes to fires by providing fuel and by preventing access to emergency equipment.
  • Clutter could also block exits and make it harder to escape if there is a fire.
  • Make sure to keep the inside of your building clean and clutter-free.
  • The best solution is to avoid storing rubbish on-site, or to at least make sure it is kept in a designated area away from main buildings.
  • Avoid the accumulation of combustible rubbish and waste and remove these at least daily and store away from the building
  • Discard any hazardous waste in a metal container that has a lid. Hazardous waste can include anything from oils to chemicals.
  • Flammable and combustible materials should be properly disposed of to prevent fire hazards.
  • Have chimneys inspected and cleaned regularly.
  • Clean cooking surfaces on a regular basis to prevent grease build-up.
  • Ensure proper housekeeping, such as preventing ventilation points on machinery becoming clogged with dust or other materials – causing overheating.
  • Never store flammable or combustible rubbish, even temporarily, in escape routes, or where it can contact potential sources of heat.

Be Cautious of Hot Work Activities

  • Only allow hot work if there is no satisfactory alternative
  • Ensure that relevant contractors are aware of hot work procedures and controls.
  • Protocols could include a hot work permit system, detailed responsibilities, routine checking and supervision.
  • Be extra cautious in confined spaces.
  • Move items to be worked on to a safe area where possible.
  • Remove or protect combustible or flammable materials.
  • Prevent, suppress, and control heat and sparks.
  • Leave the workplace clean and safe with a final check of the area at least 60 minutes after the completed job and certainly prior to premises being vacated.
  • Where there is a possibility of the presence of flammable gas/ vapour, conduct a full risk assessment and consider the need for gas detection equipment.
  • Where gas detection equipment is needed, ensure it is professionally installed, maintained and serviced.

Maintenance of Machinery and Electrical Items

Maintenance of Machinery and Electrical Items

  • Business owners are legally required to care for electrical equipment, and regular portable appliance testing is vital.
  • Use a planned maintenance programme to properly maintain plant and equipment and review existing programmes.
  • Plant and equipment which is not properly maintained can cause fires. Maintain machinery to prevent overheating and friction sparks.
  • Thoroughly clean and maintain heat-producing equipment such as burners, heat exchangers, boilers (inspected and tested yearly), ovens, stoves, and fryers. Require storage of flammables away from this equipment.
  • Have electrical equipment serviced regularly by a competent person to prevent sparks and fires?
  • Get a qualified electrical contractor to carry out installation and repairs to electrical equipment and fittings.
  • Report all electrical hazards. Many fires start in faulty wiring and malfunctioning electrical equipment.
  • Check electrical equipment, remove defective equipment, and ensure electrical cords are in good condition
  • Make sure any machines in your building are properly maintained to prevent overheating or sparks created from friction.
  • In offices, numerous computers, TV screens, internet cables, and adaptors create a need for extension leads and multiple plug sockets. Overloading power sockets or using faulty extension leads can result in overheating and potentially a fire.
  • Plug appliances and lights into separate electrical outlets
  • Avoid using extension cords where possible. If you require an outlet in an area where there is none, have one installed by a qualified electrician.
  • Use extension cords safety – not under carpets or across walking areas
  • Use only one device per outlet
  • Maintain proper pest control to avoid rodent damage to electric wiring and equipment.

Storage and Handling Flammable Materials and Chemicals Responsibly

  • Know which materials are flammable and easily combustible so that proper controls can be put in place.
  • Read the label and the Material Safety Data Sheet to determine flammability and other fire hazards.
  • If you have chemicals, flammable materials or other hazardous substances in your building make sure they are stored in a safe place away from ignition sources.
  • Use all precautions to prevent ignition in potentially explosive atmospheres such as those containing flammable liquid vapours or fine particles. Use non-sparking tools, and control static electricity as required.
  • These materials should be stored in a dry, secure closet or room that has adequate ventilation.
  • Control the accumulations of flammable and combustible waste materials and residues so that they do not contribute to a fire emergency.
  • Reduce quantities of flammable materials to the smallest amount necessary for running the business and keep away from escape routes
  • Replace highly flammable materials with less flammable ones
  • Store remaining stocks of highly flammable materials properly outside, in a separate building, or separated from the main workplace by fire-resisting construction
  • Provide clearly marked separate storage for flammable chemicals, gas cylinders, and waste materials
  • Keep fire protection equipment for flammable substances near the storage area just in case.

Maintain Easy Access to All Electrical Control Panels and Fire Alarm Equipment.

  • Ensure that all your fire protection equipment (i.e. fire extinguishers, control panels, etc.) are easily accessible.
  • Electrical control panels need to have free access maintained so that the electricity could be shut off easily.
  • Smoke detectors need to be installed, powered and active, and the same goes for fire alarms.
  • Do not block the fire sprinklers or fire alarms with anything, such as dust, debris, or paint.
  • Do not hinder the functionality of your equipment and make sure your fire extinguisher is always topped up and in good working order!
  • Schedule regular maintenance services for all your fire protection equipment to make sure everything complies with the safety regulations.

Test the Fire Alarm System Regularly.

Test the Fire Alarm System Regularly.

  • We often find that companies get so caught up in doing business that they forget to test their alarms.
  • Having a fire alarm that does not work is just as ineffective as not having one at all.
  • Have a maintenance schedule for the regular testing of your fire alarm system.
  • Never block sprinklers, firefighting equipment or emergency exits. Observe clearances when stacking materials.
  • Testing of sprinkler systems and smoke detectors should be done at least annually.
  • Maintain the appropriate type and number of fire extinguishers and learn how to effectively use a fire extinguisher.

Smoking Only in Demarcated Areas.

  • Keep your building safe from accidental fires caused by lit and irresponsibly discarded cigarettes.
  • If smoking is allowed on your premises, it is important that you provide your employees with a designated area, safely away from any flammable materials and main buildings.
  • Provide ashtrays or other safe options for people to properly extinguish and dispose of their cigarettes.
  • Encourage staff that do smoke to be extra cautious, ensuring they put their cigarettes out properly while providing special bins for cigarette disposal.

Education and Training

  • Fire safety demonstrations can go a long way when it comes to the safety of your building.
  • Every organization’s fire prevention plan should be done in writing, posted visibly in the workplace, and made available for all employees to review.
  • Designate at least one person (ideally, a team of people) to oversee fire safety.
  • Develop a list that contains the names/job titles of internal fire safety wardens.
  • Teach building occupants how to respond to a fire and how to use a fire extinguisher, along with the other fire protection devices. This can help to prevent a fire from spreading if one does occur in your building.
  • Employees identifying a fault or defect in the equipment should be encouraged to report it to a superior immediately. The equipment should be removed from use and inspected by a qualified person and be properly repaired or suitably replaced.
  • Employees should have a list of emergency contact phone numbers in case of emergency.
  • People will often panic in an intense situation; basics such as the company address, phone number and floor plan should be posted.
  • Key components of education and training could include:
  • Articulating all major fire hazards
  • Instructing employees how to properly handle and store hazardous materials
  • Educating employees on potential ignition sources and their control
  • Communicating which fire protection equipment is in place to handle each major hazard
  • Communicating the evacuation protocol and how to use your company’s emergency notification system
  • Including procedures to control the accumulation of flammable and combustible waste materials
  • Including safeguards installed on heat-producing equipment to prevent the accidental ignition of combustible materials
  • Providing First Aid Training and techniques needed to address burn wounds and smoke inhalation.

Safety and Security at Premises

Safety and Security at Premises

  • Arson is one of the leading causes of building and structure fires, necessitating investment and a focus on increased building security.
  • Identify where you may be at risk, and effectively secure your business against outside vandals.
  • Building occupants should know to lock up the building behind them and they should know how to report suspicious behaviour or people if they see something of concern.
  • Doors and windows will need to be locked, and it may be wise to install CCTV to cover expansive areas.
  • Employees need to stay alert to suspicious behaviour and ensure that anyone coming onto the site has the correct credentials.
  • Consider investing in overnight security.
  • Typically, local youths light the fires outside the premises as an act of vandalism, using materials found nearby.
  • Appropriate security measures, including the protection of stored materials and the efficient and prompt removal of rubbish, can therefore do much to alleviate this problem.
  • Occasionally, arson attacks in the workplace are committed by employees or ex-employees. Employers and other workers should be aware of this potential threat and be alert for early signs, such as a series of unexplained small fires.
  • Check that your business insurance covers fire risks.

Fire Escape Plan / Emergency Plan

  • Emergency and evacuation plans are important to prevent further damages or issues if there is a fire.
  • Emergency exit diagrams should be posted, and emergency exits should be well lit with neonregulation signs.
  • Take care when placing notice boards in escape corridors/ routes as any paper on the board could be fuel in the event of a fire
  • If someone needs to call for help, they need to know what to do, how to provide information to fire services easily find the building address, and what the next steps should be.
  • Fire prevention is just as important after a fire has already started because it can reduce the risk of it spreading, which can lead to more damages.
  • Because fire exits are used very infrequently, they can often become a place where items are stored. When a fire occurs even the smallest of items in these exits could make the difference between life and death as it stops workers from leaving the building as quickly as possible.
  • Ensure that all fire exits are free from clutter and are easily accessible.
  • Have a First Aid Kit at hand with the necessary burn wrapping and materials needed to address burn wounds.

Content and pictures courtesy of Arrive Alive.

Article written by

Nidha Narrandes

Nidha Narrandes is a food-obsessed travel addict with 21 years of journalism experience. Her motto - Travel. Eat. Repeat. She is happiest on a road to nowhere without a plan. A masterchef at home, she can't do without chilli - because chilli makes the world a tastier place.