Fire safety - what your business needs to know

Blog Post by Catherine Miller 13 November 2015

Fire presents significant risk to businesses, and can kill or seriously injure employees or visitors as well as damage or destroy buildings, equipment and stock. In 2013-14 there were 22,200 fires recorded in ‘other’ buildings (non-residential) in the UK, killing 17 people and injuring 1083. Around 75% of all fires in other buildings were started accidentally with the main cause being faulty appliances and leads.

Fires are often caused by carelessness, lack of knowledge and faulty equipment/appliances, and in most cases could be prevented. It's for this reason that businesses should put in place systems and measures to prevent or reduce the risk of fire, as well as procedures and fire safety equipment for real fires.

How does fire start?

Fires need three components to start:

  1. a source of ignition – heaters, lighting, naked flames, electrical equipment, cigarettes, etc;
  2. a source of fuel – wood, paper, plastic, rubber, foam, loose packaging materials, waste  and furniture; and
  3. oxygen.

What can your business do?

1.    A risk assessment

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It's the responsibility of the owner/landlord/occupier of a business or other non-domestic premises to carry out a fire risk assessment of the premises and review it regularly.

The following steps should be taken in a risk assessment:

  • Identify the fire hazards;
  • Identify people at risk;
  • Evaluate, remove or reduce the risks;
  • Record findings, prepare an emergency plan and provide training; and
  • Review and update the fire risk assessment regularly.

Following a risk assessment the responsible person should:

  • Tell employees about the risks they have identified;
  • Put in place, and maintain appropriate fire safety measures;
  • Plan for an emergency; and
  • Provide employees with information, fire safety instruction and training.

2.    Fire warning systems and raising the alarm

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The need for fire warning systems is determined through risk assessments and depends on the features of the premises, the activity carried out there, any hazards present or any other relevant circumstances. In most cases a fire warning system is necessary and therefore the responsible person must ensure that the premises are fitted with fire/smoke detectors and alarms.

A fire warning system in a workplace should typically include the following:

  • automatic fire detectors (smoke, heat);
  • at least one break-glass/manual call points on each floor;
  • electronic sirens or bells; and
  • a control and indictor panel.

It's important to make sure fire warning systems are in good working order. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 states that the responsible person for the premises is to ensure that a Weekly Test of the building’s Fire Alarm System is carried out.

Out of the 22,200 other building fires in 2013/14 it was found that 13% of alarms failed to operate and a shocking 47% (9,300) did not have automatic smoke alarms at all.

If a fire occurs it should be automatically detected by automatic fire detectors, but in some circumstances this may not be the case. On the discovery of an undetected fire the person must raise the alarm. Firstly, the person can shout "FIRE!" in order to alert anyone in the immediate vicinity. They should then activate the nearest break-glass call point to activate the fire alarm sytem manually.

3.    Evacuation

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It's vital for workplaces to have a fire evacuation plan to ensure all employees can get out of the building safely.

  • All employees should know the fire escape plan, and it's the employer’s responsibility to ensure that they do via information and training.
  • There needs to be at least two ways to get out of a building, in case one of them has been blocked by fire. 
  • Escape routes must be kept clear at all times, obstacles can cause further problems i.e. injuries via tripping/falling.
  • Escape routes must be clearly signposted and lighting should be provided for enclosed routes, in some cases emergency lighting may be needed i.e. if the fire causes power failure.
  • Routes can be protected by installing permanent fire separation and fire doors where possible, fire doors should never been wedged open as they are designed to prevent the spread of toxic smokes and fumes.
  • Once an employee has reached the external fire door they don't want to find that it's locked. It's for this reason that all fire doors must be kept unlocked when there are people in the building.
  • All escape routes should give access to a safe place where people can assemble and be accounted for, under no circumstances should anyone re-enter the building before being told by either the fire brigade or immediate supervisor that it is safe.

4.    Fire fighting

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All workplaces should have equipment for putting out fires. Fire fighting equipment should be located at identified fire points around the premises, and must be suitable for the purpose and size of the fire risks.

Equipment may include:

Fire extinguishers – Portable fire extinguishers allow suitably trained people to tackle a fire in its early stages if it doesn't put them in danger. At least one person on the premises should be trained in how to use a fire extinguisher.

When deciding on the type of extinguisher to provide, the fire hazards identified by the risk assessment should be considered. There are 4 different types of fire extinguisher which tackle different types of fire:

  • Water (red label) – fire started/fuelled by wood, paper, fabric, etc.
  • Foam (cream label) –fire started/fuelled by flammable liquid, oils, fats, etc.
  • Powder (blue label) – fire started/fuelled by anything including electric, flammable liquids and gases
  • CO2 (black label) – fire started/fuelled by flammable liquids and electrical equipment

Fire blankets – Fire blankets are designed to smother and extinguish small incipient fires. They should be kept near the fire hazard they could be used on and positioned where they can be easily accessed.

Sprinkler systems – In larger buildings, or areas which need extra protection (e.g. escape routes) sprinkler systems could be installed. Fire sprinkler systems are activated by individual heat sensors: as the temperature reaches a fixed temperature the sprinkler element is activated and water spray/mist is discharged.

5.    Maintenance

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All fire safety measures should be in effective, working order at all times. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure risk assessments are kept up to date and equipment is regularly checked, serviced and maintained. Any faults or changes should be put right as quickly as possible and a record should be kept of the work carried out.

Fire drills are also important, they ensure that employees understand how to respond to a fire alarm, and allow employers/management to identify any possible issues with the procedure. Employers may appoint a competent person to act as a fire warden, both during fire drills and in the event of a real fire. This can ensure that at least one person in each area of the building knows exactly what to do in the case of a fire.

6.    Housekeeping

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Good housekeeping will reduce the possibility of a fire starting. Employers and employees can do a number of things:

  • don't allow rubbish, waste paper or other material which could catch fire to build up;
  • don't store large amounts of flammable materials unless it is absolutely necessary;
  • store flammable materials in an appropriate place;
  • turn off electrical equipment when it is not in use;
  • ensure flammable items are not close to a source of heat;
  • make sure machinery and any office equipment is well ventilated and regularly cleaned;
  • do not overload power supplies; and
  • always report faulty electrical equipment, even if it still works.


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