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Fire Doctor: Risk Assessments

Len Manning
Len Manning
Technical Manager, Hochiki Europe
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I’ve done all I can to make sure my building is a safe place for my employees to work.

So why is conducting a risk assessment so important and is it a legal requirement?

A formal risk assessment is a fundamental requirement for any business. Put simply, if you don’t know, or appreciate where the risks are, you are putting yourself, your employees, your customers and your organisation in danger.

There are a number of important pieces of legislation relating to this area, including The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which contain a consistent set of requirements. Employers also have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work.

Furthermore, in order to comply with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, it is a legal requirement for every employer and self-employed person to carry out a systematic examination of their work activities and identify the health and safety risks arising from them.

When it comes to the dangers associated specifically with fire, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRFSO) makes it mandatory for a dedicated ‘responsible person’ to ensure that premises are risk assessed and that any installed life safety equipment is fully maintained and fit for purpose.

What exactly does a fire risk assessment process involve?

There are no hard and fast rules as to how fire risk assessments should be carried out, as every organisation is unique and may require a slightly different approach. However, it’s important that they are carried out systematically and all of the foreseeable risks considered.

The most important requirement is to identify the fire hazards and how people could be at risk. Once this is done it is necessary to evaluate, remove or reduce the risks. As well as employees, others who could be affected must also be accounted for including contractors, temporary workers, volunteers and the general public.

Business man balancing on the rope

You’ll need to consider emergency routes and exits, fire detection and warning systems, fire fighting equipment, the removal or safe storage of dangerous substances, and the needs of vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with disabilities. The aim should always be to reduce the risks as much as is ‘reasonably practicable’.

The term ‘reasonably practicable’ seems to me to be somewhat open to interpretation. Could you elaborate on what it means?

The concept of ‘reasonably practicable’ is at the heart of the UK’s health and safety system. It is a legal term that means employers must balance the cost of steps that they could take to reduce a risk against the degree of risk presented.

It’s all about taking appropriate measures that realistically reflect the level of risk. For example, to spend £1m to prevent two members of staff suffering from bruised knees is grossly disproportionate. However, spending the same amount on preventing an explosion that could kill or maim 150 people would be reasonable.

I’ve seen the words hazard and risk used a lot. What’s the difference?

This is a good point. Broadly speaking, a hazard is anything with the potential to cause harm – electricity, hazardous substances and noise are good examples. On the other hand, risk is measured by the likelihood that damage, loss or injury will be caused by a hazard and how severe the outcome may be.

Who can carry out a fire risk assessment and is it better to use the services of an outside fire professional?

A ‘responsible person’, as defined by the RRFSO, should understand the principles of fire safety, the causes of fire and the means for prevention. They must also have knowledge of the design of fire protection measures and an understanding of the behaviour of people in a fire situation.

However, if the responsible person does not have the knowledge to carry out a fire risk assessment on their own, it will be necessary to call on an outside fire risk assessor – someone who is suitably experienced and has a qualification such the BRE BTEC Professional Diploma in Fire Risk Assessment.

If you’re concerned about any aspect of a fire risk assessment, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) will be able to advise.

I’ve just completed a fire risk assessment and carried out the appropriate measures. What should I do next?

It is necessary to formally record your findings and once this is completed the next steps are to prepare an emergency plan and provide training information to employees and other people on the premises.

It is also important to remember to review and update the fire risk assessment regularly – at least annually – or as soon as changes are made in the workplace which have an effect on the fire risk or people at risk.

What are the potential consequences of a poorly performed risk assessment?

Death is the worst-case scenario. In 2007 at the Penhallow Hotel in Newquay a blaze killed three people and was described as the most deadly hotel fire in the UK for nearly 40 years. The owners were fined £80,000 and ordered to pay £62,000 costs for failing to meet fire safety standards and not maintaining the building’s fire detection system.

The HSE can also carry out spot checks to see whether a premises has carried out a risk assessment and its doing all it can to minimise danger to occupants. Those convicted of not doing so will experience the full weight of the law – minor penalties include a fine of up to £5,000 for breaching Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, while major penalties can mean unlimited fines and up to two years in prison.

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Len Manning
Len Manning
Len Manning is the Technical Manager for Hochiki Europe (UK) Ltd. He is responsible for all aspects of R&D for all UK-designed Hochiki products. He has 20 years' experience in FD&A design and manufacture and currently sits on two working groups within the FIA: WG3 (Fire detectors) and WG27 (Alarm Devices). He was also a member of the joint FIA/BRE task group which produced CoP 0001, the Code of Practice for visual alarm devices used for fire warning. Len is the main Hochiki representative on GETAWAY, an EU funded research project for Generating simulations to Enable Testing of Alternative routes to improve WAYfinding in evacuation of over-ground and underground terminals.
9 comments
Simon Ince
Simon Ince

It actually reads ‘a’ starting point by which I meant there are others and therefore I agree with you. That is why we made our third party scheme the same for every single applicant no matter what experince qualifications or background. It is a practical assessment of the ability to deliver.

Nearly every fire risk assessor out there who is plying their trade in an open market is going to tell their potential client they are competent. By the very nature of most people who need to appoint a fire risk assessor they aren’t going to know who is telling the truth and who is just trying to get their business. The industry supported guidance on selecting a competent fire risk assessor will offer the end user some assurance if they follow the methodology suggested. Subjectively making a judgment on someone’s experience qualifications and sense of limitation isn’t a good model for selecting a fire risk assessor.

The reality is that most FRAs should have been done by now and repeating risk assessments annually by appointing a commercial fire risk assessor isn’t sustainable. The long term management of fire safety should be a focus point for the sector now and both my presentations at FIREX will have some focus on management of fire safety. This holistic look at fire safety will obviously include the management of fire risk assessments.

Simon Ince
Simon Ince

The practical competence of a fire risk assessor needs to be independently assessed i.e. can they do the job they are claiming they can do; to the industry standard. A qualification is a starting point but it actually means very little in the way of demonstrating practical competence. You can have a qualification in fire risk assessment, but to be honest the format and methodology behind academic study in many sectors does not provide for long term monitoring and evaluation of practical performance of those who are practitioners. If we take education as a model everyone needs a degree in teaching; preferably in the subject they teach. Ofsted during lesson observations don’t give credit for the level of degree pass, they don’t give credit for the number of years in the job, or for further study; they just look at the delivery of the lesson. Can they do the job they are being paid to do to a measure of competence? It could be the experienced teacher with a first class degree who isn’t doing the job properly whilst the new graduate with a lower second class degree is an outstanding teacher. 

OUCFAstuart
OUCFAstuart

The other qualities a fire risk assessor needs, is the ability to know their limitation regarding risks, sadly not all do and we are all aware of what can be the outcome of an "assumption" .


Another great quality is common sense, fire risk assessments like all other risk assessments are not rocket science, like John mentioned below experience is the most trusted quality if you have not seen the outcome then you will not appreciate "reasonably practicable"


Stuart Smith

Fire Safety Advisor

Oxford University Colleges

AJFS_2005
AJFS_2005

I applied to BRE and was accepted onto the BTEC diploma mentioned in the article - approx 5 months in advance of the course being held as they generly only do two a year. It was cancelled at the 11th hour due to insufficient interest - only I had applied. Seeing as the course is over £2600 + VAT, it would seem that, although a fundamental requirement, being able to prove competency, also has it's price and many people aren't prepared to pay it - especially as third party accreditation or similar is still not mandatory in this industry. Until legislation obliges practitioners to at least achieve a minimum standard of qualification, different interpretations in risk assessment will continue to develop.

I have seen many risk assessments - most considered and detailed, others nothing more than a tick box scenario filled out by the "assessor" at a desk with no more "assessment" than the location of the teapot.

Unless some form of mandatory requirement is put in place, I fear that the goals of a fire risk assessment will be jeopardised as more people jump on the bandwagon as another means of making money, rather than as a real method of fire prevention.

JohnHardcastle
JohnHardcastle

I Take issue with the bit reproduced below in the context to which you have written the article - i.e. pertaining to the RRFSO 2005:


The HSE can also carry out spot checks to see whether a premises has carried out a risk assessment and its doing all it can to minimise danger to occupants.


The body with responsibility for enforcing the RRFSO 2005 (in the vast majority of cases) is the local fire and rescue authority and not the HSE (Article 25).


The HSE only have authority in respect of those premises listed in Article 25(b) of the RRFSO 2005.

JohnHardcastle
JohnHardcastle

@Simon Ince Sorry, Simon, I understand your angle better now: a qualification is 'a' starting point, but there are other starting points too.


I see now that you were not arguing for a qualification as an essential pre-requisite; but by saying that it was a 'starting point', I thought you were suggesting that competence was impossible without that piece of paper. Forgive me.


I think that the agreed competency framework and 3rd-party accreditation scheme is a very positive thing, but I think, absent a central government mandate to make it a regulated profession (which would probably demand a paper qualification as an essential pre-requisite: seems to be the case with all other regulated professions), it has problems.


The principal issues are the cost and the time factor - particularly for independent, self-employed consultants. Unless it is mandatory, it becomes difficult - if not impossible - to justify going down that road. I'm not sure what the future is for such a scheme without it being made mandatory?

JohnHardcastle
JohnHardcastle

@Simon Ince Simon: your statement here is interesting:


The practical competence of a fire risk assessor needs to be independently assessed i.e. can they do the job they are claiming they can do...


But you then go on and say that the starting point is 'a qualification' - how so? 


Why is the starting point a qualification if all we are concerned with is whether or not the person can actually 'do the job'?


You actually undermine your argument for paper qualifications further on by comparing somebody with a first class degree with somebody holding a 2:2, and stating that it is entirely possible that the person with a 2:2 could - in fact - be the better teacher.


OK - I know what you are going to say here: they both need a paper qualification to begin with... Yes - they need their degree and they need their PGCE. So the paper qualifications are a starting point - but why? Well, because teaching is a regulated profession and the law says that state school teachers NEED the paper qualifications... 


Some would argue, however, that the teaching in public and private schools is better than the teaching in state schools: guess what, no teaching qualification is required of a teacher in private and public schools (as I understand it).


And look at how a Court determines whether somebody is qualified to act as an expert witness: status as an expert can be through a course of formal study and training or through experience - or a combination of both (see the cases of R v Silvelock [1894] 2 QB 766 - a handwriting expert who studied in his spare-time - no formal training or formal study, no paper qualification - if memory serves me right; more recently approved by the Court of Appeal, one hundred years later, in R v Robb [1991] 93 Cr App R 161). So even a Court will not necessarily require a formal qualifications for somebody to be deemed qualified to be an 'expert' in their field. It isn't all about the paper!


A paper qualification might (or might not) be helpful as supporting evidence of competence, but I neither see it as an essential starting point nor as an absolute requirement for proof of competence.



JohnHardcastle
JohnHardcastle

@OUCFAstuart I could not agree more strongly, Stuart! 


You pick out two essential attributes - both of which, I think, will fall under the '...and other qualities' mentioned in Article 18(5) definition of 'competence'.


Common sense is absolutely essential: as is, I think, maturity and strength of character (for example, to challenge management who might want to influence the results of a risk assessment).


You are also absolutely correct about the process not being 'rocket science' - some people (with a vested interest in doing so) will try to argue that it is more difficult and technical than it actually is. And this, they will no doubt say, is why the industry needs to be regulated and reliant on a paper qualification. The truth is that, in principle, it really isn't that technical or that difficult. The process (of risk assessment) itself is really very simple.


However - applying the process to some premises is more challenging than others, and this is where self-awareness comes into it; knowing your limitations. You can be 'competent' to perform a risk assessment in one premises, not competent to perform the risk assessment in another. That is where the quality and the scope of the training and experience comes into it.


And having that self-awareness: knowing your limitations - and having the common sense and maturity to be able to say 'I'm not up to this, I am going to have to bring somebody else in' or 'you will need to get somebody else in', should not be overlooked.


There is a danger that putting emphasis on a paper qualification overlooks the more important elements of competence.



JohnHardcastle
JohnHardcastle

@AJFS_2005 : There is a real issue in regards to defining 'competency'. I have long held the view that a piece of paper and time doing the job is a poor yardstick for measuring competency. In some regulated professions, a paper qualification is an essential requirement. That is not the case where the RRFSO is concerned. 


The RRFSO defines competency in terms of 'training' and 'experience'.


Personally speaking, I do not believe that it would be helpful to regulate the profession and demand paper qualifications. All that would serve to do would be to line the pockets of (sometimes dubious) accrediting bodies. It would not (necessarily) enhance the services offered.


I know of people in regulated professions who have the paper qualifications required - and the time served in the job - and some of the work that they produce is not what I would call 'competent'.

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