Contents of this article
- What causes something to catch fire?
- The legal requirement.
- What are the key points to a fire risk assessment.
a). Identify the fire hazards.
b). Identify the people at risk.
c). Evaluate the risk and act to control it.
d). Record, plan and train.
e). Review and ammend.
- Download a free fire risk assessment template
- Common causes of fire
- Shop Fire Control and Compliance
Before we look at the 5 steps to a fire risk assessment, it’s often helpful to firstly understand why we carry out a risk assessment in the first place. In this case it is to prevent the occurrence of fire and manage the risks which may cause a fire to start.
What causes something to catch fire?
Fires need three things to start.
1.) a source of ignition (heat)
2.) a source of fuel (something that burns)
3.) a source of oxygen.
Sources of ignition include heaters, naked flames, electrical equipment, discarded smokers’ materials (cigarettes, matches etc), radiant heat (sun through a window), heat transfer (being next to something already hot) or anything else that can get hot or create sparks.
Sources of fuel include wood, paper, plastic, rubber, foam, loose packaging materials, waste rubbish, furniture, paint, thinners, petrol cans etc.
Sources of oxygen include the surrounding air (or in extreme cases people who are on bottled oxygen supplies).
Have you ever wondered why fire fighters in films such as “Backdraft” feel the face of a door in a building fire before opening it? They are checking for heat from a potentially smoldering fire in a room. Often a fire can start in a room by igniting furniture from a dropped cigarette for example. However, if all the doors and windows are closed then the room becomes sealed and the fire quickly consumes all the readily available oxygen. At this point the fire goes into smoldering mode until a fresh source of oxygen becomes available. If a door or window is suddenly opened, the oxygen from outside rushes in to replenish the starved room and ignites from the heat of the smoldering fire. The rush or explosion of burning oxygen can cause absolute devastation as it instantly tracks back in a fire ball to its point of entry. I.e. the open door.
The legal requirement.
Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, any fire risk assessment must be reviewed by the responsible person regularly in order to keep it up to date. This is for every non-domestic premises, including workplaces, places with public access, and common areas of multi-occupied residential buildings.
The responsibility falls to the employer, owner, landlord, occupier, and anyone else with control of the premises. That person is known as a “responsible person”. Any failure to do this can result in a fine or imprisonment of that individual.
The purpose is to ensure fire hazards are reduced as much as possible and necessary precautions are in place in the event of a fire to ensure a speedy and safe exit.
By carrying out a Fire Risk Assessment you will identify what needs to be put in place to prevent a fire, keep people safe and preserve property.
The risk assessment needs to be conducted by a competent person. You don’t necessarily have to outsource it but if it’s carried out in-house then the responsibility falls to the building owner/employer. The employer can delegate it to another within the business, but again that person needs to be competent and suitably trained.
Once you have identified the risks, you can take appropriate action to control them. Consider whether you can avoid them altogether or, if this is not possible, how you can reduce the risks and manage them. Also consider how you will protect people if there is a fire.
What are the key points of a fire risk assessment?
There are 5-key steps to conducting a fire risk assessment in a non-complex building (small offices, small work units, small retail environments etc). It’s important to realise that more complex buildings and environments such as large productions facilities, homes of multiple occupation, specialist sites etc require a fully qualified assessor who is trained and experienced to carry out assessments at that level.
However, by following the 5 steps, any capable person can complete a Fire Risk Assessment, but if you’re not sure then seek professional help as you are dealing with a situation that could potentially cause injury and death as well as loss of property and business.
1. Identify The Fire Hazards
Fires start when heat or a source of ignition comes into contact with a fuel source, and is then accelerated by available oxygen.
The simple process is to walk around your premises and identify anything that could start a fire and combust.
Portable heaters, poorly maintained or damaged electrical appliances and flexes, naked flames, sparks, poorly cleaned cooking appliances such as toasters, a build up of grease on cooking appliances and extractors etc are potential sources of fire risk. Anything flammable is something that could combust and burn, like discarded food wrappers, packaging material, furniture, overflowing waste bins.
The risk doesn’t just apply to inside the building. There is potentially just as much risk from a fire starting externally, so check for the position of waste skips and recycle bins. Are they sufficiently far enough away from your building? Check if items such as LPG gas cylinders are stored and secured correctly. Cast an eye around for the potential of vandalism and arson, whether it be intentional or badly behaving youths looking for kicks.
2. Identify People At Risk
In a fire situation everybody is at risk, including those in adjacent buildings and those you might even share a building with, such as other businesses.
Those to keep in mind would include employees, contractors, visitors and the public.
If required, also consider those at higher or special risk including night staff and people who work in areas containing flammable goods and chemicals.
People at a higher risk also include the elderly, disabled, those with learning difficulties and people such as occasional visitors who may be unfamiliar with the premises. These people will need assistance from others if an emergency evacuation arises.
3. Evaluate The Risk And Act To Control It.
Once you have established the potential risks of a fire starting and who might be harmed, you now need to consider the actions required to eliminate that risk or reduce it to the lowest possible threat of a fire ever starting.
As most fires are accidental by nature then that would include actions such as keeping flammable items away from any sort of flame or heat source. So keep candles away from curtains or situations where they could be knocked over by something falling, somebody brushing past or a cat jumping up for example.
The smaller risk, but still a risk as mentioned earlier is from arson. Mitigate the risk of arson attack by locking bins and any sources of fuel away from the building. Avoid a build up of materials against the side of a building, consider CCTV as a deterrent to being identified.
Often, small fires can be controlled, so you will need to consider fire extinguishers which should be appropriate to the type of combustible material or surrounding you have identified. For example, if you are looking to control a fire over a kitchen range, it would be extremely hazardous to use extinguishers that eject water. Obviously burning fat/oil and water don’t mix well and could create secondary fires as the burning oil spits and jumps everywhere (Plus the potentially for personal injury). The same would go for fires from electrical goods or fuse boards.
Occupants need to be alerted to the outbreak of a fire as quickly as possible. It’s just not acceptable to run around a building screaming Fire! Fire! at the top of your voice. Therefore, linked smoke alarms are a good source of alerting everybody at the same time. Again, consider people with special requirements such as hard of hearing. In this instance you may have to add a visual element to the alarm, such as a very visible flashing beacon.
Remember though, anything you do install may be subject to regular checks or servicing from a suitably qualified person, and in the case of fire extinguishers you may need to arrange some training and appoint responsible users.
That said, preservation of life is key here and nobody should try to be a hero by tackling a fire that’s getting out of control. In this case the mantra should be to get out, stay out and call the fire service.
On the subject of getting out, your final thoughts should turn to the means of escape.
Your premises needs to have clear exits, including corridors and doorways. Try not to decorate the walls of escape corridors with things that will combust such as wall art, flammable wall paper, certificates etc. The escape corridor needs to be a protected zone where people can exit safely without the risk of secondary fires or smoke.
Emergency exits need to be easy to open and clearly marked. Preferably opening out in the direction of travel, they should have smooth and fully working push bars or pads to allow the door to unlock without fumbling around trying to release locks and bolts.
Finally, the panic exit should lead out to a safe area away from the building where people can gather and recover safely. It’s one thing to escape a burning building, but quite another experience to get hit by the No7 bus as you’re running out!
4. Record Your Findings, Plan Your Prevention And Train Your Staff.
As mentioned in previous articles on risk assessment, you only need to record anything in writing is you have 5 or more staff. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t record your findings and plan of action. For one, in a busy work environment even the best thought out plans and intentions can easily drift into obscurity once the next problem crops up. So writing your plans down helps you to focus and move it forward to a conclusion. Also, if something were to happen then you have written proof of your plans and accomplishments. And to be honest, there’s nothing the prosecuting authorities love more than a conscientious employer with proof of evidence.
Finally, produce a clear plan of how to prevent and keep people safe in case of a fire. Keep it really simple and avoid jargon or confusing technical terms. Remember, people’s lives depend on this so it’s not a display of your literary genius, and make sure you share this plan with everybody involved in your organisation so they know what they need to do in an emergency, including a regular fire drill.
If training is required (fire extinguishers, fire marshals etc) then get it organised. Approach your local fire station to see if they are offering any training. Sometimes it’s free. Alternately, take a look at the website of The Institute of Fire Engineers for more help and advice on who to contact.
When it is all in place, remember that every new member of staff, temporary, permanent or on contract, will need informing of the plan.
5. Review and Ammend
Over time the risks will probably change, so keep your Fire Safety Risk Assessment under regular review. Change can include any alterations or use of the building, as well as changes to operation and the way the staff work.
Recording near misses or actual fires can give you vital information about how to change things or adopt more robust methods when you do review. It helps identify anything you may have overlooked and how to control it. Remember though, any changes must be discussed with everybody so they are aware, and if any re-training is required it should be implemented.
The summary below is taken from the HSE website on fire safety and can be accessed in full here:
>>> HSE FIRE SAFETY <<<
- Carry out a fire safety risk assessment
- Keep sources of ignition and flammable substances apart
- Avoid accidental fires, eg make sure heaters cannot be knocked over
- Ensure good housekeeping at all times, eg avoid build-up of rubbish that could burn
- Consider how to detect fires and how to warn people quickly if they start, eg installing smoke alarms and fire alarms or bells
- Have the correct fire-fighting equipment for putting a fire out quickly
- Keep fire exits and escape routes clearly marked and unobstructed at all times
- Ensure your workers receive appropriate training on procedures they need to follow, including fire drills
- Review and update your risk assessment regularly
Common Causes of Fire
Kitchen fires from unattended cooking, grease fires/chip pan fires
Electrical systems that are overloaded, poorly maintained or defective
Combustible storage areas with insufficient protection
Combustibles near equipment that generates heat, flame, or sparks
Candles and other open flames
Smoking (Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, lighters, etc.)
Equipment that generates heat and utilizes combustible materials
Flammable liquids and aerosols
Flammable solvents (and rags soaked with solvent) placed in enclosed trash cans
Fireplace chimneys not properly or regularly cleaned
Cooking appliances – stoves, ovens
Heating appliances – fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, furnaces, boilers, portable heaters, solid fuels
Household appliances – clothes dryers, curling irons, hair dryers, refrigerators, freezers, boilers
Chimneys that concentrate creosote
Electrical wiring in poor condition
Leaking/ defective batteries
Personal ignition sources – matches, lighters
Electronic and electrical equipment
Exterior cooking equipment – barbecue