Health and Safety

by Pete Fisher

Fire safety and emergency arrangements

Fire is probably the most serious danger which that the majority office-based employees will ever have to face. It can break out almost anywhere and can affect everyone.

With the possible additional risk of explosion, fire is a much more acute problem where flammable liquids and gases are used. Stringent precautions are required in these areas to ensure that no sources of ignition occur.

The regulations

The key legislation relating to fire safety is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) 2005, which came into effect on 1 October 2006. The RRO repealed previous fire safety legislation; the main focus of the reform was towards risk reduction and fire prevention, with Fire Certificates no longer having any legal status.

These changes affect all non-domestic premises and will even apply to certain activities taking place outdoors.

A keystone of the RRO is the requirement for a Fire Risk Assessment (FRA), which will help both to identify risks that can be removed or reduced and to decide the nature and extent of the general fire precautions you need to take to protect people against the fire risks that remain. Under the RRO, if you employ five or more people you must record your risk assessment and any significant findings.

Responsibility for complying with the RRO order rests with the ‘responsible person’. In a workplace, this is the employer and any other person who may have control of any part of the premises, such as the occupier or owner. In shared premises ALL those responsible must take all reasonable steps to work with each other.

Fire risk assessment

The ‘responsible person’ must ensure an FRA is carried out that focuses on the safety in the event of a fire of all ‘relevant persons’. It should pay particular attention to

  • People at special risk, such as young people, disabled persons and anyone with special needs
  • Means of detecting any fire, raising the alarm and extinguishing the fire
  • Any dangerous substances likely to be on the premises
  • Emergency plans.

A competent person must also be appointed as Duty Holder to review and manage the fire requirements of the company.

Fire procedures

All businesses must establish procedures covering the action to take in the event of a fire being discovered and reported.

The specific Fire Procedure for each property should be displayed on all notice boards, issued to visitors upon their arrival, and incorporated as an integral part of induction training of all new employees. Managers at all levels must ensure that all employees, temporary workers and visitors are familiar with and understand the action to be taken.

The procedures will require supplementary instruction if the work in particular areas poses special or unusual fire hazards or when staff work outside normal working hours.

Means of escape

It is essential that the means of escape from a building should function efficiently. Exit doors should be fastened so that they can be easily and immediately opened from the inside without the use of keys. Exit routes must not be obstructed or used as storage areas. Portable heating equipment or other sources of ignition must not be used in any part of an exit route.

Action

More people die through inhaling smoke than through burns.

Fire doors play an important role. Their purpose is to contain the fire and to prevent the spread of smoke and toxic gases that can be lethal, even in small quantities, long enough for the occupants to escape to a place of safety.

Fire doors must not be propped or wedged open; if the door must remain open during daily work, magnetic catches which are linked into the fire detection and alarm system should be installed. A routine should be established that ensures all fire and smoke doors are closed at the end of work or when buildings are empty.

Lifts must not be used in the event of a fire, due to the risk of entrapment if systems fail; certain lifts may be designated for use by the Fire Brigade in the event of a fire.

Fire alarm and evacuation

Buildings should be fitted with an audible means of raising the alarm. This is commonly an electrically-operated sounder or PA, linked to the fire detection system, but can also be a manually-operated bell or klaxon.

Automatic systems must be tested weekly at a time when occupants can hear and become familiar with the sound. All tests, maintenance and any rectification must be recorded.

It is essential that evacuation plans are exercised to ensure smooth operation and as part of staff training. The FRA will determine the frequency of tests; the minimum requirement is for a full, unannounced fire drill and evacuation on a six-monthly basis.

Disabled persons

In certain premises, specific arrangements will need to be made for persons unable to walk down the stairs. These may take the form of signed and designated ‘Refuge Areas’ in a protected stairwell, where persons unable to evacuate the building can remain and await assistance from designated colleagues. It is important that these persons are not left unattended: a responsible volunteer should stay with any such individual until their safe egress.

Fire wardens

In order to assist with the evacuation of a building and the accountability of occupants, employers should appoint a sufficient number of fire wardens to cover all parts of the building and allow for foreseeable eventualities, such as absences.

Fire wardens are usually volunteers from the area or department that they will cover; the identity of each fire warden and the extent of their zone should be displayed on notices around the building.

Specific fire warden training must be provided (and repeated periodically), covering the duties of the fire warden and the specific action to be taken in the event of a fire.

The training should ensure that fire wardens are made familiar with their building, the nature of alarm signals, the location of fire exits from their zone, and also the location of the safe areas for those people who may require assistance. They should also be instructed in the method adopted for reporting cleared areas to a central contact at the Fire Assembly Point.

Fire signage

The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 relate to the use of fire safety signage in the workplace as well as signs concerning health and other matters. The aim is to ensure that all safety signs are standardised and easily understood. They must contain a pictogram; text-only signs are no longer acceptable.

In certain areas, particularly escape routes, emergency lighting must be provided and signs must be adequately lit and maintained.

There is a statutory duty on the occupiers of premises to provide

  • Reasonable standards of fire safety
  • Adequate means of escape
  • Suitable fire-fighting equipment, of a type and standard that is reasonable in the circumstances.

Fire fighting

As determined by the FRA, buildings must be equipped with suitable means to fight fire: in other words, suitable fire extinguishers, blankets or hose reels. Other automatic systems may be installed, such as sprinklers or inert gas release systems in server rooms.

Note

The protection of human life must always take priority over fighting fires and any person discovering a fire must first initiate the emergency procedures before attempting any firefighting.

If a person has been trained, and if it is possible to do so without endangering personal safety, attempts can be made to contain and control a fire until the Fire Brigade arrives.

There is always a risk of the fire becoming unmanageable or spreading through ceiling or floor voids; therefore, the best advice is to evacuate the building and leave firefighting to the professionals.

After the fire

Even if a fire appears to have been successfully extinguished by a member of staff, it is essential that the Fire Brigade are called to check that the fire has not spread without people knowing it, and that materials or the building fabric cannot re-ignite.

All fires must be recorded and fully investigated.