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What are the most common causes of fire in the workplace?
You may think that fires tend to affect residential properties more than businesses, and in a sense, you’d be right. Yet non-dwelling properties still account for a third of all fires, with nearly 16,000 incidents in 2016/17 alone. Fire is a real and present danger, even when protocols are in place and an extinguisher is immediately on hand.
Fires do not start themselves, and whether they are deliberate or accidental, there are always steps you can take to improve the safety of your workplace. Here are some of the most common sources of fires in the workplace, and a few tips on how to identify and eliminate the risks they pose to fire safety.
Far and away the biggest cause of fires in the UK is the misuse of equipment. While fire source statistics are not divisible by dwellings and other buildings, equipment is a major fire risk in office buildings and workplaces too. This is particularly true in the construction and manufacturing industries, where heavy plant and personal tools can generate significant heat and friction.
Tools like angle grinders generate sparks which can light surrounding debris, a particular issue on building sites or in enclosed spaces. Heavy machinery also requires careful oversight and maintenance, as it often contains complex electronics and has significant power requirements. Misusing any of this equipment can pile on additional strain that can cause motor shorting or other issues, which can easily lead to a fire.
Appliance fires can be much more mundane, too. A substantial proportion of dwelling appliance fires are caused by blocking vents on microwaves, fridges and freezers, which can easily occur in a workplace canteen or break room. All of this comes down to human error, and is best addressed with workplace safety training for all employees, or a minimum of one employee per work area. Warning signs around risk carrying equipment may also act as an effective reminder.
As important as the source of fires is what fuels it. Offices in particular tend to be stuffed with highly combustible materials, with files and folders of paper and cardboard, as well as wooden furniture and other constructions. These can lead fires to spread rapidly through occupied areas, with things like inadequately protected suspended ceilings also posing a risk.
Combustible materials are also a major factor in many arson cases. Items that are left accessible on site and next to buildings may be susceptible to arson, particularly unemptied skips and waste disposal. Prompt waste disposal and security measures – such as CCTV and security lights – can help to prevent this. You may even wish to use security patrols if your site is particularly sensitive or vulnerable to an arson attack.
This may also be a risk factor for smokers. If your workplace has a dedicated smoking area, ensure that a proper cigarette bin is provided to avoid improper disposal. If you don’t, consider creating one, as smoking in a variety of outdoor locations (or behind the building, where rubbish collection and storage tends to be) could be a serious risk. This is especially crucial if you have any fuel storage on site, as fumes and trails from moving fuel can quickly ignite.
Faulty appliances and wiring are the second most common cause of fires, and can be among the most dangerous. The presence of wiring in enclosed roof and wall spaces can mean that fires begin undetected, and spread for a period of time with no intervention. While the exact cause hasn’t yet been pinned down, it’s believed the recent Kemerovo fire was caused by an electrical malfunction which rapidly consumed the shopping centre.
Frugal businesses often work under the mantra that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and many appliances can linger for decades in active use. Many companies still use dated computer systems running on old terminals, and still others will have space heaters or other appliances from the 80s and 90s, or even earlier. One pool club in England was recently found to be using an iron with a pure asbestos heat board.
Well-made appliances can last for a long time, and newer ones are often seen as being of inferior quality. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to use old ones, but they should be tested frequently. Annual PAT tests are mandatory to ensure all appliances are in good working order, and any frayed or damaged wires should be immediately investigated. Employees should also be aware of the dangers of overloading circuits, and should stick to a ‘one plug per socket’ rule.
Heat and dust
The third most common source of major fires is placing articles too close to a heat source. Like microwaves and refrigerators, heaters and radiators need clearance from any nearby objects. Clothing and other items should never be draped over them, and objects should never be left close enough that the heat may cause them to combust.
You might have the common sense not to leave a fuel source by a heat source, but some combustibles are less obvious. An accumulation of dust can cause explosive flash fires, with the most flammable dusts including wood, plastics and flour. This is a particular danger in workshops and food preparation areas, which combine dust sources with fires and sparks.
When introducing a heat source (such as a portable heater) to a new location, conduct a risk assessment to highlight any combustibles, and use common sense to keep it clear of as many objects as possible. If your occupation produces a lot of dust, you should provide extraction to minimise the amount that can collect, as well as suitable respiratory equipment for your employees.
The best way to fight fires is to prevent them at the source, and there may be as many of these as you have employees. With the right training and preparation however, employees and owners alike can learn to look out for the risks, and make actionable changes to improve fire safety in your workplace.