Fire is one of the oldest known hazards in the workplace. What’s more, realistically, the danger of fire is likely to increase rather than decrease. Firstly, modern workplaces are now full of electrical equipment. Secondly, the UK now routinely experiences very high temperatures in summer. That means it’s vital all businesses take effective precautions against fire in the workplace.
What does the law say?
Technically, UK law does not currently require commercial properties to have fire alarms. If, however, you operate in Scotland, it may be worth staying on the alert for changes to this law. The Scottish government already mandates that interlinked fire alarms be installed in all residential properties. It is entirely possible that they will update the law on commercial properties to match this.
With that said, UK law does require all businesses to carry out a fire risk assessment and have an appropriate fire detection systems. UK law also places a duty of care on employers and on businesses that have members of the public on their premises. In this context, the term “members of the public” does refer exclusively to customers. It could be any third party, for example, delivery drivers.
This means that, in practice, it would be extremely risky for any business to operate without effective fire detection systems and effective fire alarms. Even if you somehow escaped being sued for damages, you might not be able to survive the reputational damage.
Assessing the risk of fire
The basics of a fire risk assessment are essentially the same as any other form of risk assessment.
- Identify the fire hazards
- Identify who might be at risk
- Identify what might be at risk
- Mitigate the risks as far as you can
- Record your findings
Once you have completed your initial fire risk assessment, you must commit to reviewing it as appropriate. In practical terms, that should usually mean at least once a year and after any significant changes.
Mitigating the risk of fire
The first three steps in this process are likely to be fairly straightforward. Most of the effort will probably be spent on mitigating the risk of fire. In particular, it will be spent on mitigating the risks to humans. Mitigating the risks to assets is generally fairly easy. Essentially, you store them in a way that protects them against fire, if applicable, have copies of them and, where possible insure them.
Protecting your staff (and other people)
Protecting your staff from fire requires you to take three steps. Firstly, you need to prevent fire if at all possible. Secondly, you need to have fire detection systems in place so that there is a prompt warning if a fire occurs. Thirdly, you need to have a plan in place for what you will do if a fire does happen. You will also need to make sure that your staff are given any training they need to implement this plan.
The fire triangle is oxygen, heat, and fuel. Preventing fire, therefore, means preventing these elements from coming together. You cannot remove oxygen from a building, that leaves heat and fuel.
Heat is a bit of a grey area. You can control artificial sources of heat (e.g., radiators) but you cannot control the weather. In the UK’s climate, this is unlikely to be a problem for the vast majority of the year.
In summer, however, temperatures can actually get very high. It’s also worth noting that even in spring and autumn, the sun does have the potential to start a fire. For example, if a ray gets channelled through glass, it can become an ignition for easily combustible material. This includes paper which is in plentiful supply in most workplaces.
For the most part, therefore, you will need to focus on eliminating sources of fuel i.e., flammable materials. If you can’t eliminate them, then you need to minimise the likelihood that they will come into contact with heat. For example, if you must store cardboard packaging in your workplace, try to keep it in a cool basement or dark, cool cupboard.
This is literally what fire detection systems are for. Fire detection systems are, however, of little use on their own. They need to be connected to fire alarms so that people can be alerted when a fire is detected.
It’s vital to choose the right fire detection mechanisms for your situation and to place them in the right areas. It’s equally vital to ensure that fire alarms can be heard by everybody in the building. That includes people who are not employees.
What this means in practice will depend on your workspace. If you are not clear on this, then it can be very helpful to get help from a professional. This doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, companies that sell fire alarm supplies may well be able to offer guidance for free.
Once you have your fire detection system and fire alarms in place, you will need to ensure that they stay in working order. This means testing them regularly. The current British Standard is to test fire alarm systems a minimum of once a week. You should also get them serviced every 6 months.
React to fire
You must have a plan for what you will do if a fire is detected. This plan must be communicated to staff but you should never rely on them remembering it. A standard plan in workplaces is to extinguish a fire if possible and evacuate if not.
Some workplaces may have sprinklers, but these cannot be used safely on all fires. Fire extinguishers may be specific to fires created by certain types of fuel. It is, however, possible to buy fire extinguishers that are safe for use regardless of the fuel type. These are generally the preferred choice in workplaces as they are the simplest option.
All workplaces need to have clear and safe escape routes from all areas. This includes areas that are not considered workspaces (e.g., storage rooms). You can never know where people will be when a fire breaks out. The routes should be easy to follow, even in the dark (i.e., when it’s smoky).
When people have exited the building, they should meet at a designated assembly point and be role-called by a responsible party such as a fire warden.