Fire is one of the most destructive forces on the planet. It is deadly to all living creatures and can do irreparable damage to property. In short, the threat of fire needs to be taken very seriously by everyone, particularly businesses.
Safety is an employer’s responsibility
You might think that safety is everyone’s responsibility. Ethically, this may be true. Legally, however, employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees. What’s more, business owners may be responsible for the health and safety of any third parties on their premises.
This provides legal motivation for employers to act responsibly. In many cases, however, the thought of the consequences of a fire will be more than sufficient motivation. No decent employer wants to see their employees or customers killed. No business wants to see its premises ravaged by fire, not even if they are insured. No company wants to risk being forced to close as the result of a fire.
Understanding fire risks is crucial
Robust fire risk assessments and safety measures start with understanding the likely possible causes of a fire. You then eliminate as many of these as you can. If you can’t eliminate them, you minimize them as much as possible. Then you train your employees on how to manage them.
Fire-safety training should include awareness about how fires can start, evacuation procedures and, potentially, how to put out a fire. It should be delivered to all new employees and contractors and refreshed periodically. If a business location is open to third parties, they should also be provided with sufficient fire-safety training.
Remember that it’s virtually impossible for any business to function without third-parties visiting it at least occasionally. For example, most businesses are going to need deliveries. They may also need cleaning services, repairs and maintenance. The people who come on-site to perform these functions all need to be kept safe from fire.
Understanding the possible causes of a fire
Fire is basically what you get when a chemical reaction causes oxygen, heat and fuel to combine and ignite. This means that anything which has the potential to bring these elements together has the potential to start a fire. When you look at the situation from this perspective, you might be surprised just how many potential fire hazards there are, even in a basic office.
For example, most offices still have at least some printers. They will also tend to buy their printer paper in bulk, as this is generally the most economical approach. If this paper is just stacked in a big pile, then you have essentially just created a large quantity of fuel. There is oxygen in the atmosphere so all that’s needed to start a fire is sufficient heat.
Eliminating fire risks
Eliminating fire risks basically means finding ways to break the fire triangle. This is always the preferred approach. In the real world, however, it’s also the most difficult. Oxygen is always present in the atmosphere. This means that as soon as fuel or heat is brought to a place, you have two-thirds of the fire triangle in place.
Minimizing fire risks
Given that eliminating fire risks is usually infeasible, the emphasis generally has to be on minimizing and managing them. In practical terms, this generally means being aware of sources of heat and potentially flammable materials and taking steps to keep them separate.
For example, offices could store their printer paper in a cool, dark place. This would minimize its natural exposure to heat. They could also ban the use of naked flames in the building to reduce the fire risk even further. Similarly, they could ensure that cardboard (packaging) was taken to a central collection point also in a cool, dark place, ideally out of the way of regular traffic.
All businesses should take great care to ensure that their electrics are kept in good working order. Professionals should always be hired for any serious electrical work. General cable-management, however, is definitely within the remit of the average business and should be taken very seriously. In addition to being a potential fire hazard, it’s also a potential tripping hazard.
Managing fire risks
Even with all the best precautions in place, there is always the risk of a fire. When a fire breaks out, you need people in the building to be alerted as quickly as possible. This means that you need smoke detectors and fire alarms.
It can be very helpful if fire alarms are connected directly to your local fire service. This ensures that the emergency services are promptly alerted in the event of a fire. If this is not possible (or not desirable), then you need to ensure that there is a robust process for contacting the emergency services.
If a fire breaks out, your staff may need to evacuate the building. Evacuations must be properly managed. There are two key points to remember here. Firstly, no matter how well you communicate exit policies, staff may still forget them. Secondly, the building may contain people who are particularly vulnerable, for example, people who are unable to hear alarms.
Generally, the most practical way of dealing with these issues is to appoint sufficient fire marshals to oversee any evacuation. These marshals will typically be given special training to make sure that they are totally comfortable with their duties. You will also need to make sure that there are always sufficient numbers of them in the building.
Last but not least, you also need to remember that your responsibility continues even after people have left the building. You need to make sure that everyone gathers where they are supposed to gather and is confirmed as having left the building.
Putting out fires
In some cases, it may be appropriate to equip at least certain employees with the tools and skills to put out small fires. This can save an evacuation and a call out to the fire brigade and hence preserve business continuity. If companies do choose to implement this process, they have to be extremely careful to ensure that employees stay within safe boundaries.
Peter Watson, Director at Watson & Watson Health and Safety Consultants. Watson & Watson are experienced health and safety consultants, providing health, safety, and risk management solutions throughout the UK