Engineering fire safety

Louise Smyth

Although the number of fatalities caused by fire in the workplace is falling year-on-year thanks to enhanced technologies, there were still almost 5,000 fires in non-residential premises in 2015. Pre-incident planning is essential in both avoiding fires and ensuring the safety of all personnel on-site if the worst was to happen. Here, Paul North looks at how effective pre-incident planning can be implemented

Common causes

The most common causes of fires in commercial buildings are kitchen equipment, electrical faults, heaters and boilers, smoking, arson and storage. Fires occur most often in retail and vehicle trade premises, but also in recreational facilities, restaurants, schools, hospitals and in industrial premises. Over the past 10 years almost 120 people have died in non-domestic fires. And the tragedy is that most of these incidents were preventable.

If you are a commercial landlord or the owner-occupier of a commercial building, you are responsible for fire safety. If you do not follow fire safety regulations you can be fined an unlimited amount of money and be sent to prison for up to two years under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. 

Pre-incident planning

Fire safety awareness should be an integral part of any engineering business’ pre-incident planning, especially in high-risk industries with large-scale endeavours such as oil refineries and process plants.

Pre-incident planning involves identifying the fire hazards present at the premises, identifying the people at risk, whether that’s employees, visitors or the general public, evaluating, removing or reducing the risks, recording these findings, preparing an emergency plan, providing training to those who may be affected by a fire, and regularly reviewing and updating the fire risk assessment. It sounds onerous – but it’s an essential legal requirement and can literally be the difference between life and death.

Areas of consideration include emergency routes and exits, fire detection and warning systems, firefighting equipment, procedures for dealing with dangerous substances, an emergency evacuation plan, the needs of vulnerable people who may need to be evacuated, relaying information to employees and visitors, and effective fire safety training for all those who may be affected by the outbreak of a fire. 

A pre-incident plan is a document that will detail all of this information and will assist the emergency services in assessing which resources and procedures are needed to effectively deal with a specific situation. Usually it includes additional information such as access problems, the size of the building, floor plans (including the location of stairs and lifts) where the nearest fire hydrants are located, the content of the building and any internal fire protection which it has. 

It not only safeguards the occupants of the premises affected but also forewarns and protects the emergency responders called upon to manage the situation. 

The UK government has published comprehensive fire risk assessment guides that outline the appropriate approach to take in a number of industries and commercial environments – referencing engineering as notably high-risk. Pre-incident planning can be undertaken internally, by a designated person who has undergone specific training. However, in high-risk environments the services of a professional risk assessor is advisable. They will be able to assist in putting together a wide-ranging and thorough pre-incident plan that will enable you to identify risks, implement emergency procedures and potentially save lives. 

Paul North is with Fire and Water Supplies.