Editor, IFSEC Global

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James Moore is the Editor of IFSEC Global, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry. James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Global, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
June 16, 2021

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Fire safety guide

A practical guide to fire safety for offices

John Davidson, the National Security Inspectorate’s (NSI) Approval Schemes Manager (Systems), provides a first-hand practical and topical fire safety guide for offices, helping those responsible for facilities to confidently ensure their sites are fit for purpose.

JohnDavidson-NSI-21A phased return of staff to workplaces during 2021 has been anticipated for some time following the successful rollout of the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination programme and Government’s roadmap easing restrictions across all four nations, as we all learn to adjust to the ‘new normal’.

The coronavirus pandemic means site owners, facilities managers and others must be mindful of fresh challenges following such a lengthy period where offices have remained largely empty, and the potential continuing need to observe social distancing. The significance and wide-ranging importance of fire safety looms as large as ever.

For all those responsible for the safety and wellbeing of employees working within these environments there is an immediate and important office fire safety checklist to cover. This includes ensuring electrical equipment tests and system servicing regimes are up to date, emergency evacuation procedures remain appropriate, and exit routes are clear. Revised office layouts also need to be considered, given any social distancing measures to be implemented, along with one-way movement routes into, around and out of sites.

Fire hazards in offices

Common causes of fire in office environments are predominantly electrical faults, misuse of equipment such as portable heaters, inappropriate disposal of smoking materials, and inadvisable storage of potentially flammable or combustible materials.

As a starting point, all offices require a five-yearly inspection of fixed wiring. This should be up to date, since there are immediate insurance and legal implications for any lapses in the schedule. More pertinently, given the various COVID-related lockdowns across the UK since March 2020, PAT (portable application testing) of office equipment such as PCs, monitor screens, printers and power packs is crucial for health and fire safety and must be up-to-date, to help avoid potentially fatal consequences of undetected electrical faults.

The now routine use of sterilising hand-gel is a new factor to be considered: these gels are typically 70% alcohol in content, and potentially flammable. Safe storage should be borne in mind. For example, placing multi-litre gel packs in office cupboards may expose a site to additional fire risks if these are also the site of electrical distribution boards or other similar hazards.

Fire risk assessment checklist for offices

The starting point for all office fire safety measures lies in fire risk assessment. This is a task required by law, and responsibility for it rests with the nominated ‘Responsible Person’ or ‘Duty Holder’. Three similar pieces of legislation for England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland each cover this. Even while still coping with the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and its impact on the use of space and occupancy, fire risk assessment is a mandatory duty which cannot be neglected.

Life safety fire risk assessment (LSFRA) is at the core of establishing sufficient fire prevention, protection and suppression measures, alongside safe evacuation procedures to be used in the event of an incident. These should include appropriate COVID-19-related social distancing measures at any evacuation point to ensure compliance with ongoing Government guidance and protect the health and safety of evacuees from office facilities. In essence, LSFRA protects lives and the Duty Holder is tasked with ensuring it is completed.

FireRiskAssessment-21

Assessment is best conducted when a building is occupied and operational since any changes to use or occupancy are essential considerations in any assessment, as is the integrity of physical elements such as escape routes and fire doors. Where five or more people are employed the results of LSFRAs must be documented and also be periodically reviewed to ensure they remain valid, for example following a change of use, occupancy or structure of a building.

Further advice is available from the Home Office, which has produced guidance for fire risk assessments at offices and shops. 

Common sense safety measures

Most fire risk assessments amount to common sense, especially when dealing with smaller and low risk office workplaces. UK legislation does not actually define fire risk assessor ‘competence’ but Government guidance does advise Duty Holders who feel unable to complete a fire risk assessment to seek advice from a competent person. Guidance recommends assessments be conducted by a person with comprehensive training and experience in the type of fire risk assessment to be carried out.

Third Party Certification/Approval underscores the competence of providers and so adds significant assurance and rigour for Duty Holders looking for help in meeting their fire safety obligations.

In practical terms, using an approved provider will ensure all relevant fire safety weaknesses are identified, measures to correct them properly prescribed, and an appropriate timetable documented in a written report the Duty Holder can subsequently share with any relevant authorities including fire & rescue services. Use of such providers also enables those tasked with the fire safety of office facilities to prove to their insurers their duties have been satisfactorily discharged.

FireSafety-Office-21In addition to prevention strategies, a fire risk assessment’s findings should also include information on site-specific safety procedures and verification of the operational fire safety plan, custom designed to the specific office environment concerned.

Good practice fire safety ‘housekeeping’ measures, combined with effective maintenance regimes, should include the weekly testing of fire alarms alongside regular testing of emergency lighting. Larger office facilities require designated, appropriately trained and equipped fire marshalls, appointed from among the team working on site. With many employees still working from home, and potentially only returning to their offices part-time, existing measures may not be adequate.

Similarly, with many offices having been largely unused for over a year, fire door mechanisms and locks should be checked. Door frames should be examined for any warping which may impede door opening. Interior and exterior checks should also be made for obstructions on evacuation routes such as stationery supplies inadvertently left on the floor. Weekly walk-round observations organised to ensure nothing blocks emergency fire doors are ideal.

Illustrating typical problems that can occur, one NSI-observed site inspection revealed a fire door blocked from the outside preventing opening: building materials temporarily stacked outside by a construction firm working on the neighbouring site were the problem.

Conclusion

The fire safety risks associated with office sites now include a variety of new COVID-19 related factors. A methodical approach guided by an up-to-date fire risk assessment will help ensure all relevant issues are considered and appropriate risk mitigation measures are applied.

A combination of fire safety systems, procedures and regular observational checks lies at the heart of both establishing and maintaining high standards to protect staff, office visitors, contractors working on site, and others such as out-of-hours security officer patrols.

Connect with the fire safety community online 1-30 June

Connect 2021 is your first major opportunity to come together with the fire safety community online from 1-30 June!

FIREX Connect, the month-long online event, will give attendees the opportunity to make up for lost time by browsing fire safety solutions, connecting with suppliers and getting up-to-date on the latest legislation from the comfort of your home.

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