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Fire Safety in the Workplace

Fire risks aren’t immediately clear to most people in the standard office environment. After all, they’re not using the chemicals and open flames seen in factories and workshops, with their desks and partitions seemingly a world away from the industrial workplace where fires are a real and frequent risk.

However, human error and negligence are a major factor in starting office fires, through mis-use of machinery and equipment, to distraction and lack of a cleaning rota. Our guide highlights how to determine which areas are at most risk of fire, steps to take to prevent fire from starting or spreading, the correct extinguishers to use on fires should one start, and products we recommend installing and applying to your business to prevent fire and smoke spreading, allowing staff and customers enough time to evacuate.

Quick links:

Why is fire safety important in the workplace?

How does a fire start?

Safety precautions to take to prevent fire in the workplace

Know your fire extinguishers

What does a fire risk assessment include?

Preventing and slowing down the spread of smoke and fire

We are here to help!

Why is fire safety important in the workplace?

Fires take lives, cause serious injuries, and damage property.

The bill after a fire can be enormous, with lengthy downtime gutting a building and refurbishing with new décor, buying expensive computers and equipment, the time spent installing wires, cabling and services. Your company may be insured against fires, compensating you for the cost, but whilst you’re unable to trade, your customers will be switching to the competition and may not return. Even smaller fires, contained to a single room, can cause untold damage to equipment and wiring, leaving your business unable to process certain customers and their needs.

Employees may also find themselves out of work after a serious fire. With no workplace to return to, skilled staff could look to move on.

How does a fire start?

A fire requires three things to start:

  • A source of ignition
  • Fuel
  • Oxygen

Searching for and identifying the three sources of fire will help you take measures to prevent the three coming together, reducing the likelihood of a fire occurring. You can then base your fire safety around these areas to help tackle flames or direct people away to escape routes.

Where the three elements cannot be avoided, fire compartmentation using fire-stopping products will help contain and slow down the spread of fire, allowing time for evacuation and for emergency services to arrive.

Safety precautions to take to prevent fire in the workplace

Simple routine maintenance and good habits around the office, with regards to organisation and cleanliness, helps prevent fires and limits injuries due to negligence, as well as increasing morale. A happy workplace makes a happy employee, with tidy work spaces being less distracting and having to spend less time finding documents, increasing focus. You can start with checking the batteries in smoke alarms once a month and arranging for fire extinguishers to be serviced regularly.

Storing office supplies – reams of paper, sticky notes, and combustible products like tippex and lighter fluid – inside cupboards and filing cabinets reduces clutter and keeps flammable materials contained, so that if a fire did break out, there wold be less “fuel” for it to feed on. The same applies to packaging; new computers, printers, copying machines, etc, all arrive loaded with materials to protect them in transit that fly out everywhere once the box is opened. Clear these “Class A” materials away after the contents have been emptied, either into storage bins outside or to designated areas.

Dust clogs up ventilation grilles, blocking air from circulating properly, and can cause wires and cables to overheat. Electric extractor fans found in bathrooms can spark and ignite lint that gathers on the vent and around the motor, with the fan feeding the fire with air. A regular cleaning routine of computers and equipment will also cleanse the environment of viruses and bacteria, which contribute to the nine working days an average worker loses each year to illness, further disrupting the workplace.

Training staff to use and maintain electrical items responsibly and safely reduces the chance of ignition. Extension leads should only be used when needed, being sure not to overload sockets so that they run hot, and extension reels should be unravelled fully as the cable can become hot inside of the reel housing when in use. Electrical heaters, fans and radiators must be clear on all sides by three feet. These practises extend to kitchens and staff rooms; frayed and damaged cables should be flagged up and replaced so not to spark in use, causing fire or serious injury. Ensure that staff know how to properly use kitchen appliances; knowing not leave toasters unattended, or what not to use in a microwave, may sound obvious and condescending, but many fires have started through lackadaisical approaches such as drying cleaning cloths in the microwave. It doesn’t take much to be distracted by sitting down to read the news on your smartphone or being called away by another employee, leaving the kitchen unattended.

Testing electrical equipment for safety will help guard against accidents and injuries in the workplace.

A PAT test involves a competent person, such as a qualified electrician, examining electrical appliances for damage and defects both visually and through testing, to ensure that they are sound and safe to use. Using Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) isn’t required by law, however, the test ensures employers are compliant with certain health and safety regulations. How often electrical equipment needs testing should be based on a risk factor, usually on how frequently the item(s) in question are used, but this is down to the employer to ensure that all equipment provided in the business is safe to use.

Fixed Wire Tests involve testing the main electrical wiring systems that conduct electricity around a building. Required by law, the Health and Safety Executive states that “Electrical installations should be tested often enough that there is little chance of deterioration leading to danger”, with industry recommendations of a maximum of 5 years between inspection and testing. Most businesses prefer to stagger testing out over a period to minimize disruption, sometimes overnight, as tested areas need to be isolated.

Smoking areas should be designated away from windows and doors where sparks can blow in, with appropriate bins available for cigarette butts to be discarded safely. Throwing smoldering cigarette butts into bins or down drains can ignite litter, whilst flower pots can contain flammable peat, moss and combustible chips, and also chemical fertilizers.

More offices are installing soft furnishings, with sofas and comfy chairs seen in departments and reception areas. Since 1988 the introduction of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations in the UK demands that all sofas are treated with fire retardant, so be sure to check the label.

Know your fire extinguishers

Use your fire risk assessment to determine which types of fire your business may have to tackle and ensure the correct fire extinguishers are available and accessible.

Water

Identified by:

A white striped label.

Use on:

  • Solid materials, such as wood, cloth, coal, plastics, paper and textiles

Do not use on:

  • Any other types of fire

Care should be taken:

Using water on electrical fire will result in electrocution, and is ineffective on flammable liquids and gases, as well as oil and grease in fires with chip pans and deep fat fryers.

How it works:

Water extinguishes flames by lowering the temperature of the fire.

Where water fire extinguishers are needed:

Environments with combustible materials, such as reams of paper, cardboard boxes and  packaging, carpets and textiles on soft furnishings in offices as well as warehouses, storage units and factories.

Powder

Identified by:

A blue stripe.

Use on:

  • Solid materials, such as wood, cloth, coal, plastics, paper and textiles.
  • Liquids, such as petrol, diesel, and paint.
  • Gases, such as methane and butane.
  • Electrical fires (up to 1000v)

Specialist powder fire extinguishers exist for:

  • Lithium fires (L2 extinguishers)
  • Other flammable metal fires (M28 extinguishers)

Do not use on:

  • Electrical fires that involve equipment and appliances over 1000v
  • Chip pans and deep fat fryers
  • Flammable metals, unless using a specialist type of powder fire extinguishers
  • Fires in enclosed spaces

Care should be taken:

Using a powder fire extinguisher can obscure vision during discharge and, in an enclosed space, could cause the operator to inhale some of the powder. These extinguishers carry a slight danger of a fire re-igniting as they don’t cool the area.

How it works:

Powder covers a fire to separate it from oxygen, starving the flames. The powder doesn’t cool or lower the temperature of a fire, however, so there is a risk of the fire reigniting.

Where powder fire extinguishers are needed:

Outdoor environments such as garage forecourts and liquid storage facilities, fuel tankers and workshops. An office may need a powder fire extinguisher if it has a large boiler room, often seen in commercial properties shared with other businesses.

Foam

Identified by:

A cream stripe.

Use on:

  • Solid materials, such as wood, cloth, coal, plastics, paper and textiles
  • Some flammable liquids such as petrol, diesel, and paint

Do not use on:

  • Flammable gases, such as methane and butane fires
  • Kitchen fires involving chip pans and deep fat fryers
  • Electrical fires

Care should be taken:

Foam fire extinguishers can damage electrical appliances if sprayed onto them.

How it works:

Foam is lighter than the fuel it is extinguishing, floating on top to starve the fire of oxygen. Water based, foam fire extinguishers also lower the temperature of a fire to prevent reignition.

Where foam fire extinguishers are needed:

Most environments benefit from having foam fire extinguishers to hand; paired with a CO2 extinguisher, especially in an office, should tackle most fire risks.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

Identified by:

A black stripe.

Use on:

  • Electrical fires

Do not use on:

  • Fires involving oils and grease, such as chip pans and deep fat fryers

Care should be taken:

Released at high pressure, the spray horn on the extinguisher can get cold quickly and risks burning the user. As a CO2 extinguisher works by replacing oxygen with carbon dioxide, asphyxiation is a risk in confined spaces.

How it works:

Fires needs oxygen to burn; CO2 extinguishers discharge carbon dioxide at high speed to replace oxygen and starve a fire.

Where CO2 fire extinguishers are needed:

Any premises using electrical equipment, such as offices and hospitals, should have CO2 fire extinguishers fitted as standard.

Wet Chemical

Identified by:

A yellow stripe.

Use on:

  • Fires that involve oils and grease, such as cooking oils and fats (olive oil, lard, butter, vegetable oil) used in kitchens
  • Solid materials, such as wood, cloth, coal, plastics, paper and textiles

Do not use on:

  • Flammable liquids, such as paints, petrol and diesel
  • Flammable gases such as butane and methane

Care should be taken:

Wet Chemical extinguishers emit toxic fumes when used, so areas should be ventilated after use.

How it works:

Wet Chemical extinguishers spray a fine mist of potassium salts that react to create a soapy formula on the surface of a fire, smothering it from oxygen. The mist has a cooling effect and is released gently, so not to fan flames onto surroundings.

Where water fire extinguishers are needed:

Any professional kitchen, such as restaurants and hotels, should have Wet Chemical fire extinguishers installed as standard, as should businesses with staff rooms and kitchens that use chip fans or deep fat fryers.

What does a fire risk assessment include?

A fire risk assessment isn’t exhaustive or limited, there are many recommendations to such as the following:

  • Emergency routes and exits
  • Fire detection and warning systems
  • Firefighting equipment
  • The removal or safe storage of dangerous substances
  • An emergency fire evacuation plan
  • The needs of vulnerable people, for example the elderly, young children or those with disabilities
  • Providing information to employees and other people on the premises
  • Staff fire safety training

A fire risk assessment must be conducted at the workplace and, if your company has 5 or more employees, then a written record of the assessment must be taken. Storing the building layout and a copy of the fire risk assessment in a fireproof box near the main entrance, such as a reception area, allows fire and emergency crews to access important information in an emergency.

Repetition is the key to instilling awareness of fire safety measures in the workplace. Stressing importance of the emergency plan will make it second nature if an employee discovers a fire so that they know what to do, and what systems are in place for dealing with fires and evacuation procedures.

Weekly testing of your building’s fire alarm reminds employees of the importance to be vigilant whilst at work and, by testing the alarm at the same time and day each week, should mean no confusion as to whether the alarm is being tested or is alerting to a real fire. Having several designated Fire Wardens that cover for holidays, sickness and business meetings, ensures that there is always someone trained onsite to deal with a fire emergency, and ensure that the building complies with the emergency plan. However, the legal responsibility for fire safety in the workplace is the owner or occupier of a business.

Fire drills every six months assures employees of the fire evacuation plan in place, educating them not to run or panic when the alarm sounds and practice moving to the designated meeting point. They can also practice helping to escort visitors, customers and contractors out of the building, with fire wardens able to act out the scenario so that they are well rehearsed. This would be a good time to remind staff of the fire safety risk assessment and of any changes since it was last written. Be sure to update your assessment with any building or extension work planned for your business, updating staff accordingly.

Fire exits must always remain clear of obstacles. Blocked routes cause injury as people rush to escape, tripping or being crushed. Putting warning tape, stickers and signs on the floor and walls will remind people not to leave equipment and belongings in escape routes, whilst designated fire wardens should check fire exits routinely. Fluorescent paints and luminous tapes and markings can be put to good use marking the sides of hallways used as an escape route, as well as the edges of steps, in case the lights are out when the fire alarm sounds.

Preventing and slowing down the spread of smoke and fire

Where the three elements for creating a fire cannot be separated, these rooms and spaces should be compartmentalised to help contain and slow the spread of fire and smoke. This gives more time for employees and visitors to evacuate safely, and for emergency crews to attend and fight the blaze. The quicker a fire can be extinguished, the less damage to equipment and structural integrity, helping companies reopen faster and experience much less disruption to business.

Compartmentalising using fire-stopping products and components not only prevents fire and smoke spreading from a space, it can also help protect rooms and corridors from being spread to, keeping fire escapes clear and saving rooms full of expensive equipment and information. Fire stopping products aren’t just for new builds or extensive refurbishments, with most able to be retrofitted quite easily and quickly with minimal fuss. Care will be needed to ensure that fire stopping components are fitted correctly, so if in doubt, hire a professional.

Suspended ceilings are an office favourite, allowing cables to be run above the space and housing network switches, Wi-Fi routers and ventilation ducting without the need for trunking along walls or cutting into plasterboard. Most suspended ceiling tiles won’t prevent the spread of fire, so a fire barrier should be used on the grid above to help contain the fire – half of the Fengate Greyhound Stadium, according to Peterborough’s The Evening Telegraph, was saved due to a fire curtain, in a fire that took six hours to bring under control.

Lights and fittings such as downlighters and fluorescent lights, and air conditioning units, can melt or come loose when exposed to fire, if not sparking themselves. This leaves gaps in ceiling tiles and plasterboard for fire to penetrate and enter the void above, traveling along electrical wires and cables, through ventilation ducts, etc. Use covers above the fittings to restore integrity to plasterboard and suspended ceilings. Ventilation ducts can be protected using intumescent block grilles, allowing free airflow but expanding in fire to fill the space to prevent fire and smoke passing.

Holes in walls, floors and ceilings can be penetrated by fire and smoke, spreading through a building.  Seal these up with sealant and mastic, particularly where pipes and cables run through, and use intumescent pillows and pads for larger gaps and inside of trunking, conduits, etc.

Offices and server rooms often use cable trays, a cheaper alternative that allows easier access when replacing wiring or laying new services, which require larger spaces when running through walls and ceilings. Use intumescent pillows to fill these large gaps, which expand up to three times their size in fire to prevent the spread of smoke and flames.

Where cables run along the tops of walls in corridors and fire escapes in conduits or trunking, casings and fixings, such as cable ties, can melt in fire and cause wires to dangle down. These are a trip hazard for people trying to escape, and for firefighters attempting to enter a building to assist with evacuation and tackle a fire head on. Consider using fireproof cable support systems for holding services against walls, keeping fire exits clear.

Light switches and sockets should have intumescent gaskets inside to prevent fire penetrating through a wall, especially when sockets are back-to-back in adjoining rooms or partition walls, popular in workplaces for dividing a space up into individual offices. Without a gasket, flames can enter through a switch box in minutes, bypassing fire barriers and spreading through rooms quickly. Using cavity barriers will also prevent fire spreading in the space between walls, up into roofs or between floors in multi-story office blocks.

Raised floors are convenient for offices, data centres and server rooms for storing uninterrupted power supplies, servers, cooling systems, cabling, and other services. As with suspended ceilings, the void underneath allows fire to spread unless the space is divided and compartmentalized, using intumescent slabs.

Fire Doors are supposed to stay closed and treated with fire-resistance coatings to prevent spread of fire and smoke, restricting air that feeds fires. Using a door closer (or self-closing hinges) ensures that the door shuts after being opened, negating human error. Intumescent fire seals under and around the door will seal gaps for air, fire and smoke to pass through, whilst an intumescent ventilation grille fitted in the door allows air flow without reducing the integrity of your fire door.

We are here to help!

Fire safety in the workplace isn’t something to be taken lightly; it costs lives, injury, and can devastate businesses. Before deciding which fire stopping product to purchase, before fitting, or for some general advice on which components would fit best for your business, do not hesitate to call our technical team on 0113 245 5450 or email our sales team at [email protected].

IMPORTANT FIRE PRODUCTS NOTICE: The information displayed on this website should be used as a guide ONLY and our Technical Department should be contacted to obtain a tailored specification and any advice necessary before you place an order for fire protection products. Fire protection products are non-returnable except in accordance with Condition 8 of the Terms and Conditions. We will not be held liable for any resulting damage to property, human life or monetary costs incurred due to the incorrect specification you have prepared or use of fire protection products caused by your negligence, including your failure to have contacted us to obtain the relevant advice/specification.

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