Fires and explosions aren’t necessarily the most common types of workplace accidents here in the UK, but when they do occur, they can be exceptionally dangerous – even deadly. Even if employees escape harm or injury, the consequences of fires can be extremely expensive for businesses – not just because of the damage to property and stock, but also potentially in terms of litigation if the employer was found to be at fault.
Below, we’ve listed some of the most common causes of fire in the workplace, and the action you can take to prevent them.
1. Faulty electrical equipment
Topping our list is one of the singularly biggest causes of workplace fires. Loose wires, overloaded plugs and faulty connections can all result in dangerous electrical fires. One of the reasons it’s quite so common is that it can happen anywhere; offices, workshops and warehouses alike. Cost-saving measures can often play a part, as businesses put off replacing technically functional but worn-out equipment. They always require investment, true, but the safety aspects are priceless!
It’s worth remembering that business owners are legally required to care for electrical equipment, and regular PAT testing (that is, Portable Appliance Testing) is vital. Electrical fires are particularly hazardous because they can’t be put out with water. It’s just one more reason to make sure your fire extinguisher is always topped up and in good working order!
2. Flammable and combustible materials
Improper storage of these materials is a common contributor to workplace fires – workshops and garages, for example, can be prone to them, as sparks from circular saws and similar tools can set light to nearby flammable materials. In certain spaces, these might include materials such as flammable chemicals, or oil barrels. Thankfully, this risk is often neutralised simply by ensuring that all materials are properly stored, well away from ignition sources.
Given the tangible dangers that such hazardous materials pose to employees and visitors, every workplace be focused on fire safety as a top priority, and it should be included in regular risk assessments. However, such fires can occur even when everything is in its proper place, too. Warehouses are known to be at a particularly high risk of fire due to the large quantities of stock and materials they often hold (paper, for example). For this reason, it’s vital to ensure that proper procedures are also in place – which we’ll come onto in just a moment.
3. Lack of staff training
It’s an unavoidable fact of life that accidents happen. Perfectly serviceable equipment might burn out unexpectedly, or certain materials might turn out to be suddenly flammable. While not all fires have a perpetrator (accidental or not), proper training for all staff is vital for both dealing with these circumstances, and avoiding them in the first place. This can prevent innocent mistakes that might later turn out to be catastrophic – for example, unknowingly blocking the vents of electrical equipment that requires air to keep itself cool, or unwitting improper storage of the materials like we mentioned above. Naturally, educating staff on the nature of various flammable materials should be an absolute top priority when it comes to training them on proper procedure.
If a fire does still somehow occur, it’s also vital to ensure that everyone is aware of the proper procedure. First of all, the relevant personnel need to be alerted to the fire so that remedial action can potentially be taken (for example, using the fire extinguisher), while everyone else needs to be aware of evacuation procedure; the quickest, safest way to exit the building. Under no circumstances should they be left to work it out for themselves. This can expose them to considerable risk, and be taken as an act of negligence on behalf of the employer!
4. Lack of resources and equipment in place
It sounds basic, but you might be surprised at how many businesses continually neglect this step. Above all, prevention is key, and that means investing in the resources that are specifically designed to keep people safe. Smoke detectors need to be installed, powered and active, and the same goes for fire alarms. We’ve mentioned the importance of having filled and functioning fire extinguishers several times already over the course of this article, but it certainly warrants hammering home a final time! Without proper equipment, a fire can quickly reach a dangerous stage before you or your employees are even aware of it, and you’re far more vulnerable even once you are. We all know how important it is to keep our smoke alarms at home on and active – the same rules apply for the workplace, too!
It might sound paranoid, even outlandish, as a potential concern, but according to the Home Office, 45% of all serious fires in the UK (to both homes and business) were thought to be caused by arson. It’s therefore imperative to ensure that you’ve correctly identified where you may be at risk, and effectively secured your site against outside vandals.
Key holders – those responsible for locking up the building – need to be particularly aware of their responsibilities, and you may want to consider investing in overnight security. Doors and windows will naturally need to be locked, and it may be wise to install CCTV to cover expansive areas. Finally, all employees need to stay alert to suspicious behaviour, and ensure that anyone coming onto the site has the correct credentials.
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