Workplace fire safety
By following these simple steps you can reduce the likelihood of adding to the UAE's fire statistics.
By following these simple steps you can reduce the likelihood of adding to the statistics, but if fire does occur, keep the impact to the absolute minimum. Glen Sumber, senior fire consultant and Dean McGrail, director, WSP Fire, explain.
Fires in the workplace are all too common and have resulted in the loss to many businesses, both in the UAE and internationally.
Loss from a fire can be measured in physical injury to yourself, employees and anyone visiting or near the premises; in damage to the premises and its contents and financially through loss of business, reputation and on occasion through court action.
But statistics show that by taking some simple steps, the majority could be prevented from happening or at least reduce the consequences.
A relatively small fire, lasting no longer than the average lunch break could easily cause the type of injury and damage that may leave long term physical effects and the closure of a business. So what can facilities managers do to reduce the risk of fire and minimise losses?
There are a number of simple steps FMs can take to reduce the risk of fire occurring in the workplace and any subsequent effects on you, the employees and the business.
Make sure all employees receive suitable fire training on a regular basis. The training should include:
1. A simple explanation of what fire is, how it occurs and the likely causes;
2. Fire reduction methods all employees can take;
3. The emergency plan - how you are notified of a fire in the office, what to do if you hear the alarm and how to contact the emergency services;
4. Basic fire fighting methods;
5. The escape routes out of the building and the location of the assembly point;
6. What to do after a fire has occurred, including any business recovery plans;
7. Specialist training where required, e.g. fire wardens and evacuation marshalling.
In the event of a fire, it is the escape routes that will get everyone in the workplace out of the building in the shortest possible time.
For this reason they must remain usable at all times.
Remember to consider:
1. A general rule of thumb says that escape routes should be a minimum of 1.1 metres wide;
2. Escape routes should not be used as storage areas. Small levels of storage can take place but items must be in a fire proof cabinet which must not obstruct the route;
3. Ensure escape doors are working correctly - the automatic closer operates, double doors align with each other when closed and smoke seals are not damaged;
4. Do not fix items to escape doors that have not been approved by the manufacturer - you will affect its performance in a fire;
5. Implement a system for checking the escape routes daily and one that controls changes to the routes either due to construction or maintenance;
6. Ensure escape signage is clearly visible from all locations in your workplace;
7. Affix escape notices adjacent to final escape doors.
Poor housekeeping creates the right environment for a fire to take place, providing both a place where ignition can occur together with a ready source of fuel.
It may also create obstructions to the escape routes.
That said, it is perhaps one of the easiest risks to control:
1. Ensure outer clothing is hung up and not allowed to become piled in an escape route or on a heater;
2. In an office, a clear desk policy will help keep paper and other flammable materials to a minimum;
3. Use metal bins and ensure employees do not allow waste to build up on or near their work areas;
4. Waste storage should be in a dedicated area, away from escape routes and regularly emptied;
5. Take care when disposing of oily rags as they can self-ignite;
6. Set a good housekeeping example - if you keep your area clear other workers will be more inclined to follow suit.
Most workplaces have storage and it is likely that the stored items will be flammable.
This is particularly the case where large quantities of paper records are stored, especially if they are not kept in a metal cabinet.
Storage of the more risky, highly flammable substances such as solvents and gasses, should be kept to an absolute minimum.
If incorrectly stored even small quantities of a highly flammable substance may greatly enhance the size of fire and any effects.
Storage considerations should therefore include:
1. Store sensibly and consider adjacent heat sources - large quantities of photocopier paper stored behind the copier provide a fuel for the heat from the copier to ignite;
2. Only store sufficient quantities of substances for your immediate needs - consider off-site storage for items that are not required daily;
3. Remove highly flammable substances altogether or where this is not possible reduce the amount stored in the workplace.
Follow the more stringent legislation (like the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002), to control highly flammable substances;
4. No naked flames adjacent to storage areas containing flammable substances.
The majority of fires in workplaces are caused by faulty electrical appliances and leads (Fire Statistics Monitor. Issues 01/08, 02 May 2008 - Communities and Local Government).
Steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire will include:
1. Ensuring all electrical equipment is not damaged and working correctly - look for fraying cables, exposed electrical connections and cracked and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“sooty' marking on casings;
2. All fixed electrical equipment, e.g. photocopiers, should be maintained in accordance with the manufacturer's guidelines or industry standards.
This should be carried out by a competent person;
3. Portable electrical equipment, e.g. drills, should be tested at a period suitable for the equipment.
This may take the form of a portable appliance test (PAT), but may also be achieved through inspection by a competent electrical engineer;
4. Check the equipment and ensure the correct fuse has been installed. If you do not feel confident doing this, get a competent electrical engineer to help;
5. Do not overload sockets. Multi-point plug adaptors can overheat and create a source of ignition. Likewise, multi-point extension leads can also become overloaded and catch fire;
6. Do not store flammable materials against items of electrical equipment.
The equipment may not catch fire but the heat generated may create the ignition source for the stored flammable materials to ignite.
Gases and flammable liquids
Gases and flammable liquids in workplaces will probably be used and stored in small quantities. But bulk purchasing of substances, aerosols and solvents, for example, may create a larger risk.
Steps to be implemented to ensure safe use and storage include:
1. Store and use only sufficient quantities for day to day activities;
2. Keep all gases and flammable liquids in a proprietary metal cabinet with suitable hazard labels clearly placed on the front;
3. Ensure all gases and flammable liquids are used for the purpose they are designed;
4. Leaks and spillages should be cleaned up immediately;
5. Ensure there are no naked flames in the vicinity of stored substances or where they are being used.
Poorly maintained or inoperative fire safety equipment, such as fire detection and alarm systems and emergency lighting installations, could put employees in danger if a fire were to occur.
They are designed to both detect a fire in its early stages and provide adequate warning to all occupants so that safe escape can be achieved.
Maintenance requirements are stipulated by both the US and European standards (the fire and life safety codes adopted in the UAE) and should be undertaken by suitably qualified persons.
The person in control of the workplace should assure themselves that all such systems are fully working and maintained and tested in accordance with the relevant standard.
Considerations to follow to ensure systems operate correctly include:
1. Know and understand the systems your building has;
2. Employ a competent contractor to undertake all maintenance and testing of fire safety systems;
3. Regularly test the fire alarms to ensure they work and employees know where to go;
4. Request confirmation of all work undertaken and keep copies of the test certificates;
5. Do not cover or paint-over smoke detectors;
6. Ensure manual call points (break glass units) are accessible at all times;
7. Portable fire extinguishers should be maintained at least once each year;
8. Check the main fire alarm panel for fault indicator lights. The panel will usually be located in the main entrance to the building.
If a fault light is indicated contact your maintenance contractor.
General maintenance activities
Maintenance activities can also be the cause of a fire in your workplace.
Many maintenance activities create heat, sparks or use naked flames. Activities may also impact the fire safety systems or obstruct escape routes.
It is imperative that suitable controls are implemented that should consider:
1. A check and approval system for all maintenance activities in your workplace so all risks can be assessed before work starts;
2. Permits to work such as for hot working, isolation of fire systems and interruption to sprinkler supplies;
3. Ensuring the maintenance workers fully understand how they will interface with the rest of the building and the employees;
4. Where an isolation or interruption to a fire safety system occurs, ensure suitable alternative measures are implemented;
5. Ensure additional portable fire extinguishers are provided within the maintenance site.
Whilst arson is uncommon in the UAE at present, to reduce its possibility the following measures should be considered:
1. Ensure the workplace is secure at all times - remove areas where trespassers can gain access unobserved and keep fences maintained;
2. External bins should be kept away from the building - at least six metres;
3. Install security cameras in prominent locations - they double as a visible deterrent;
4. Investigate frequent, small fires within the workplace considering the possibility of in-house arson;
5. Ensure all doors are kept shut and locked (but remember if they are an escape door they must be easily opened from the direction of escape);
6. Check all doors are firmly locked shut when your employees leave at night.
Use of unauthorised equipment
Equipment that has been brought in from home or elsewhere may not have received the same level of maintenance and testing as your equipment.
It may also be unsuitable for the particular work environments at your workplace.
1. Do not allow equipment to be brought in and used without first ensuring it is maintained and fit for purpose in the environment;
2. Unwanted (false) alarms where no cause can be found, may sometimes be the result of home equipment such as toasters;
3. Canvass your employees to ascertain what equipment they require - this may prevent equipment being brought in.