Fire Safety in the Workplace

Workplace fires can have devastating effects for people and businesses. Businesses can find premises destroyed, equipment damaged beyond repair and have important data and paperwork lost forever. However important we may think these business assets are, it does not compare to the catastrophic effects of fire on people.

Most fires are preventable, and it only takes a thorough fire risk assessment to identify the hazards and implement safe working conditions to ensure fires don’t start and if they do, are contained by fire designed safety measures.

If your workforce, from senior management to the newest employee understood the basic elements of the fire triangle which highlights how fires are started, You would be able to implement preventative measures that make for a safer working environment and potentially save lives.

Why is fire safety important in the workplace?

The obvious answer is Life. FIRE KILLS. Have a look at the statistics in England 2016 – 2017.

17 DEATHS
fire hazards
1100 INJURIES
fire safety consultants
22000 TOTAL FIRES
fire risk assessment

What can cause a fire in the workplace?

The main reasons fires start are:

  • Faulty or overloaded electrical equipment
  • Hot work practises (such as welding)
  • Cooking
  • Portable Heaters
  • Housekeeping and an accumulation of rubbish
  • Smoking
  • Arson

To prevent the causes of workplace fires, we must first understand fire behavior.

FIRE TRIANGLE

Fire is the visible product of a chemical reaction called combustion. Combustion occurs through heat, fuel and oxygen.

FUEL must HEAT to its ignition temperature and there must be OXYGEN to sustain the visible flame.

 

fire triangle
HEAT

Energy is required to supply an Ignition source. Take away the heat and there will be nothing to start the fire. Sources of ignition include:

  • Smoking
  • Electrical equipment
  • Faulty/damaged wiring
  • Heaters
  • Naked flame
OXYGEN

A fire needs oxygen to grow and continue burning. Oxygen is usually ever present but we can reduce oxygen when we shut windows and doors. Building design can also help by dividing areas into compartments known as compartmentation.

FUEL

Every substance and material burns. Some materials take longer to reach this temperature than others.  Common sources of fuels include:

  • Paper
  • Wood
  • Rubbish
  • Plastics
  • Furniture
  • Materials/Textiles

If you take away any of these sources, then a fire does not have the ammunition to get started or it will die out.

How does fire spread?

Convection

The transfer of heat through gas.  Heat and smoke forms a moving cloud of hot gases that will rise above cooler air generating a build up of heat at higher points. These hot gases can move around a building through windows open doors and externally through open windows. This is why when there is smoke in the room, you should get as low as possible.

Conduction

This is a transfer of heat through a material. A fire may start in one room but the heat can be absorbed by structural metal beams and transfer to other rooms. A great example of conduction is when you stir a pan of hot water using a metal spoon. Eventually the end of the spoon will become hot.

Radiation

 The transfer of heat through heat waves. The heat waves produced by a portable heater can ignite an object without coming into direct contact. A good example of heat through radiation is the effects on human skin whilst sunbathing.

Direct Contact 

This is the most common way fires can spread. Fires will burn when it comes into contact with heat. The heat will build up enough for combustion to occur.

Backdraught and Flashover

Backdraught and flashovers occur after the ignition source has been established and in most cases the fire has had time to develop.

Backdraught

occurs when a fire has burnt up all or most of the oxygen within its surroundings. This usually happens in a compartment that is poorly ventilated. The hot smoke and gases will remain in the compartment. The compartment is now rich in heat and fuel and only requires a burst of oxygen to be introduced to have an explosive effect.

Flashover

occurs during a developing fire. The fire is rich in all sources of combustion and therefore gives off super-heated gases. Once these gases reach their ideal temperature they ignite into flames and the fire becomes fully developed. Like backdraught this transition is explosive.

Backdraught and flashover are deadly even to the fire services. This is the reason that you must GET OUT and STAY OUT of any building involved in fire.

What is a fire hazard in the workplace?

A hazard is anything that can cause harm. Here are a few examples of how a fire can cause harm, even death

Smoke inhalation – This is the main cause of fire deaths. By nature we misjudge the dangers of smoke. We think because smoke is not a physical barrier we can easily pass through it unharmed. In fact, firefighters refer to smoke as ‘hot gases’ and would never move through it without specialist breathing apparatus. Its important to understand the make up of smoke.

This toxic cloud is made up of:

  • Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen Cyanide that will make it difficult to breath, make you drowsy and is fatal.
  • Acrolein, Sulphur and Nitrogen will irritate and sting your eyes and airway
  • Phosgene and Dioxins are found in biological nerve agents and effect the central nervous system making it difficult to control basic movements.

Other fire hazards

  • Fire and heat – Our human instincts tells us to move away from heat during a fire but the heat given off will damage airways quickly. Burns come in 3 levels of severity but even a small burn can be deadly.
  • Depleted oxygen levels – Fires need oxygen and will leave very little in the air to breathe, knocking someone unconscious, eventually leading to death.
  • Falling objects – Fires will cause internal and structural damage. This can cause the ceilings to collapse, with falling beams and other dangerous heavy objects that could cause crushing injuries.

Lack of escape route – If there is no sufficient planned route or a fire is blocking an area, this can cause people to be trapped.

Human behavior

It is difficult to quantify how much of a role people play in accidental fires. However, studies have shown that human behaviour often plays a part in injury or loss of life during a fire. This behaviour is not only identifiable but more importantly preventable.

Here is a list of common traits shown in humans during a fire emergency.

  • Not reacting or reacting slowly to a fire alarm actuating.
  • Looking for guidance or for someone else to react first.
  • Using an unsafe evacuation route because it is the closest or most convenient.
  • Not realising how much time it takes to get out of the building.
  • Underestimating how quickly a fire develops.

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