Fire on construction sites
A guide to loss prevention
Each year, insurance companies pay out millions of pounds in claims following significant fire and smoke damage events to commercial and domestic properties during their refurbishment, extension or new construction. The construction process involves significant fire hazards and risks. Fire can totally destroy not only the newly constructed aspects, but also much or all of the existing structure where refurbishment works are being undertaken.
This brief document aims to provide a best practice guide for contractors and home renovators in preventing fire on both commercial and domestic projects, whether that be a new build or a refurbishment. Our guide is designed to raise awareness of some of the key practical arrangements and working methods that should be in place to mitigate the risk of fire.
For more detailed guidance, reference should be made to the document entitled ‘Fire Prevention on Construction Sites - the Joint Code of Practice on the Protection from Fire of Construction Sites and Buildings Undergoing Renovation’ (JCoP), obtainable from the Fire Protection Association‘s website: www.thefpa.co.uk. Compliance with the document may well be a condition of your insurance policy and you can ask your construction team/project manager to demonstrate how they are meeting its requirements and recommendations. This guide applies equally if you intend to project manage the works yourself.
A note on timber-framed buildings
If your project involves a timber frame, then significant additional control measures will be required. The timber frame should be constructed by a contractor registered with the Structural Timber Association (STA, previously known as the UK Timber Frame Association; UKTFA) and built in accordance with STA/UKTFA guidelines or jurisdictional equivalent. These guidelines will include fire safety and fire prevention arrangements, as well as the need to risk-assess the possibility of fire spreading to neighbouring properties. These guidelines can be obtained from the Structural Timber Association‘s website: www.structuraltimber.co.uk.
The nature of fire
Typical sources of heat on construction sites include (but not limited to) soldering or brazing of pipes, welding, grinding, hot tar boilers, lead work, smoking, combustion engines, temporary heaters, lights, arson activity, and temporary electrical supplies.
Typical sources of combustible material include timber joists, floorboards, roof trusses, joinery, waste (cardboard, polythene, timber pallets etc.), gas bottles, petrol, diesel, sawdust, vehicles, fuel-driven plant, temporary buildings, temporary protective coverings, etc.
Oxygen is ever present but is also enhanced through oxidising agents and oxygen bottles.
Fire prevention starts during the design and planning stage and can be heavily influenced by decisions made by the contractor/design team/homeowner prior to the commencement of construction. Consideration should be given to the mitigation of all potential fire hazards through:
- the use of non-combustible and non-flammable materials
- materials and methods that avoid the need for hot work on-site
- design details that prevent the passage of smoke and flames up through the building
- design of access routes to retain
- safe evacuation during the construction phase
Fire safety and prevention management
Fire risk assessment
Fire safety management plan
A major cause of fire on construction projects is hot work. This consists of operations involving the use of open flames, grinding, welding and the local application of heat or the generation of sparks. Hot work should be designed out of a project and replaced with cold work applications wherever possible. Where hot work cannot be avoided, then typical control measures should include; clearing the immediate area of combustible materials prior to undertaking any hot work, provision of two appropriate, dedicated fire extinguishers and a designated person appointed to monitor the area for at least one hour following completion of the hot work.
All hot work should be strictly controlled by a hot work permit. Further detailed guidance is available in our separate guide to loss prevention entitled ‘Fire caused by hot works’.
Security against arson
Many fires are started deliberately. Construction work often opens up external walls, doors and windows and, if not secured, can provide easy access for an arsonist. Having a full-time professional guarding service in place on site is an effective way of mitigating this risk. However, if this will not be in place, and the site is not occupied day and night, then you should take precautions to secure the property when left unoccupied. The exposure to crime in your area may be assessable via your local police force’s website (for projects in the UK, visit www.police.uk).
Security precautions should be actively managed on site, typically by the main contractor. Provisions should include:
- a solid, timber hoarding around the property with lockable gates and doors
- securing all openings in external walls, basements, doors and windows, with temporary boarding, metal sheeting or bars, at all stages of the project, when the site is unoccupied
- a temporary, internal, motion-sensor intruder alarm system linked to a remote monitoring centre
- scaffold alarm
- lockable steel containers for materials, equipment and tools
- motion-sensor site lighting
Storage of flammable liquids and gases
Temporary electrics and gas
Plant and vehicles
Plant and vehicles generate heat and contain fuel, which can lead to a fire. Stationary plant powered by internal combustion engines (such as compressors and generators) should be positioned in the open air and separated from all buildings.
Exhaust pipes should be kept clear of combustible materials. Fuel should not be stored in or near buildings. Fuel tanks must not be filled while engines are hot or are running, and should only be carried out in designated areas. All plant and equipment should be protected against any accidental impacts. As a general rule, the long term parking of vehicles should not be permitted within 10m of the building except to allow loading or unloading.
Temporary buildings and accommodation
Many fires start in temporary buildings and accommodation where there are often heaters (for drying clothes), electrical items, office furniture, documents, etc.
Temporary buildings should be separated from the building under construction/refurbishment and other permanent buildings in order to provide as wide a firebreak as reasonably practicable. Where the firebreak is less than 6m, temporary buildings should be fire rated to provide at least 30 minutes’ fire resistance.
Temporary accommodation (i.e. constructed on-site) must be constructed with materials which do not significantly contribute to the growth of fire or the propagation of smoke and/or corrosive fumes. Where unavoidable, and where temporary accommodation is constructed within a building under construction, the arrangements must be separated from the rest of the building by walls and ceilings which achieve 30 minutes’ fire resistance. They must also be fitted with smoke detection equipment. Establishing temporary accommodation in existing structures should be avoided where possible. Establishing temporary accommodation within timber-framed structures should be prohibited.
If temporary heaters are used within temporary buildings or accommodation, they should be thermostatically controlled with enclosed elements. Coat stands and drying racks must be positioned a safe distance from heaters. Microwaves should be used in preference to gas cookers.
Temporary covering materials
Fire safety procedures
Although this guide is primarily about preventing fires, a critical consideration is the safe evacuation of all inhabitants of the building, including construction workers and possibly family members, in the event of a fire.
To this end, robust emergency procedures need to be in place and should include:
- Fire instructions - written emergency procedures, displayed on-site and communicated to all personnel within the building
- Fire alarm – an adequate means of raising the alarm must be in place; typically air horns, push- button ‘howlers’ or, on larger projects, a linked wired or wireless fire alarm system
- Fire escape signs and lighting - provision of prominent fire escape signs and temporary lighting, where permanent provisions have been impaired
- Escape routes - two escape routes must be available at all times from all areas of the building. Dead-end situations should be avoided or kept to the absolute minimum for the shortest possible time
- Fire drills - the emergency procedures should be checked every three months by carrying out fire drills to evacuate the building to an assembly point. Any shortcomings in the procedures should be addressed
- Fire detection - smoke detection systems should be provided where temporary accommodation (eg; offices, stores, canteens, drying rooms etc) has been established within the building
Liaison with the fire and rescue service
Terms and definitions used in this guide
- Hazard: something with the potential to cause harm or damage.
- Risk: a measure of the impact and likelihood that a hazard will cause harm or damage (severity x probability).
- Control measure: something which manages the hazard and reduces the risk.
- Loss: a claim made under an insurance policy as a result of theft or damage.
- Design team: the professional team comprised of construction specialists including an architect and possibly a structural engineer, project manager, quantity surveyor, interior designer and building services engineer, etc.
- Fire risk assessment: an assessment of the fire safety hazards to people and property.
- Fire safety management plan: a stand-alone document detailing how fire safety will be managed on a construction site.
- Hot work: an activity involving the application of heat, naked flames or sparks.
- Hot work permit: a form issued to allow hot works to proceed subject to certain conditions and control measures.
- Temporary buildings: includes prefabricated cabins, site huts, cargo containers, caravans and portable buildings brought onto site for use as offices, stores, workshops or welfare facilities, during the course of the works.
- Temporary accommodation: a segregated part of the building under construction or undergoing refurbishment and occupied as offices, stores, workshops or welfare facilities during the course of the works.
- Firebreak: an obstacle to the spread of fire, such as a strip of open space.
Structural Timber Association – health & safety guidance notes on fire safety and fire prevention on timber framed construction projects (www.structuraltimber.co.uk) Risk Control Arson Prevention – ‘The Protection of Premises from Deliberate Fire Raising’ (RC48) (www.stoparsonuk.org) Disclaimer: The guidance in this document refers to industry best practice loss control advice. Adoption of the advice contained within this document does not imply compliance with industry, statutory or HSBEI guidelines, nor does it guarantee that related losses will not occur. HSB-LCE-RGN-012 Rev: 0 Date: 10/08/2015