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Are we Doing all we Can on Fire Safety?

The importance of getting fire safety right

At least 78 people were killed by a fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh last month. This was a chilling reminder of the importance of getting fire safety right.

According to reports, flammable materials had been stored on the ground floor of the building where the fire started. It quickly spread out of control, leaving dozens of people unable to escape.

No matter where in the world you are, fire is a risk and we should do all we can to prevent it. Equally important is that procedures are in place to evacuate a premises should a fire happen.

"companies are largely very good at doing fire alarm tests and safety briefings"

How well prepared is your organisation should a fire happen? Does your organisation have an emergency action plan, based on assessed risks? If an employee found a fire on your premises, would they know the correct procedure? Or is there a risk that there is complacency among workers?

Avoiding complacency

Complacency is in fact a real danger which businesses must guard against. Companies are largely very good at doing fire alarm tests and safety briefings.

But without meaningful discussions about why they are held, there is a risk that they could switch off and ignore important steps which can save lives. In some cases, it can result in workers not taking a real fire seriously.

Businesses need to seek ways to keep fire, and what to do in the event of one, in the minds of workers. This can be achieved through ongoing – and stimulating – training including regular evacuation drills. Another aspect of training should focus on encouraging employees to be proactive in preventing fires in the first place.

But, as much as efforts can be put in place to prevent fire, they can still occur, for varying reasons. If a fire happens, early detection is crucial. Raising the alarm promptly and ensuring a safe and speedy evacuation for all staff must be a priority. Three minutes is the maximum time to evacuate all employees to an area of safety. The sooner evacuation is initiated, the sooner employees can be brought to safety.

Vulnerable workers

Early detection is also important to safeguard the lives of vulnerable workers. Those with limited mobility or with certain impairments such as difficulties in either hearing or seeing the alarm may need additional assistance. The needs of vulnerable workers must be taken into account during risk assessments. Managers may need to install bespoke equipment to aid their safe exit from the building and put in place procedures to ensure this happens seamlessly.

Depending on the disability, at least two designated people should be trained and assigned to help these workers in the event of a fire, which takes into account absences. Wheelchair users will need help leaving the building by the stairs, so managers should consider providing specifically-designed methods and equipment to aid the safe evacuation.

A group of fire evacuation wardens should also be selected, trained and regularly drilled to guide all occupants from the building to the external assembly point and to ensure everyone is accounted for.

Safe acts

Every work area in a business should have an emergency plan which outlines the key responses if an incident occurs. This should cover actions to take when a fire is discovered, what to do if a fire alarm is activated, the primary and secondary exit routes and external assembly points. There should also be instructions that make it clear that staff should only use the stairways in an emergency and never the lifts.

Staff should also only use a fire extinguisher if they have been trained in its use and know the correct type to use.

The pathways leading to the assembly points must always be clear, unobstructed, well lighted and unlocked.

Managers need to ensure that an emergency evacuation plan (map) accompanies the emergency procedures. The map needs to note the current location (you are here) and both the primary and secondary exit routes all the way to the designated external assembly point. Like the emergency procedures plan, the evacuation map must be large enough to see and visible in low light. It’s vital that both exit routes avoid hazardous areas, which means that they may not be the most direct route out of the building.

Both the emergency procedures plans and evacuation maps should meet the national legal requirements; reflect the business’ fire risk assessment; and draw on lessons from previous incidents, drills and exercises. As a minimum requirement, they should be displayed in an area where workers as well as contractors and visitors will see them.

Phases of an evacuation

There are four distinct phases of an evacuation, as follows:

  • Detection – from fire ignition to detection to sounding the alarm
  • Pre-movement – the time it takes from the alarm being raised to the start of movement to emergency exits
  • Travel time – the time to reach the exits
  • Flow time – the time to get through the exit the outside of the building

Any delays in confirming that there is a fire, before the evacuation starts and before the fire service is called, will significantly increase the risk to life and property.

  • Dr Gold previously wrote on this subject in IOSH Magazine.
  • If you want to know more on the subject, two events will address fire safety this month:
  • IOSH’s Swiss Network, in conjunction with the FRMG, will have a Fire Safety Day on Monday 18 March in Olten, Switzerland which will include a technical demonstration of the Swiss Federal Railroads rail-based firefighting trains. Click here for more details meeting.
  • There be a Fire Safety day-long programme organised by the Mid Shires Branch and FRMG on Thursday 21 March. Click here for more details.
  • The group is also in the process of creating four fire safety resource modules, each one looking at different aspects of fire safety – the role of the OSH professional in fire safety, avoiding complacency, a company’s response to a fire-related incident and assisting disabled people in fire emergencies. More information will be available on these soon.
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IOSH is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. With more than 47,000 members in over 130 countries, we’re the world’s biggest professional health and safety organisation.