Office environments are very common places of employment for people in many different professions. With office environments being somewhere a lot of people spend their days, it is important to consider fire safety in the workplace, specifically in regards to the office environment. If you work in an office, whether you are the owner, the manager or an employee, this blog post will provide you with all the information you need to know about fire safety and what you can do to help keep your office safe.
A considerable part of fire safety is the prevention of fires. The top cause of fires in offices are due to electrical distribution, which was found to be the cause of 31% of all office fires. Ensuring that all staff are aware of how to prevent fires from occurring and what to do in the case of a fire cannot only save the company a lot of money in terms of damages, but can also save lives and prevent injuries. We will cover everything from legislation to common fire hazards in this blog post to help you stay clued up on fire safety.
Common Fire Hazards
It might surprise you that many office fires have similar causes. Knowing the common fire risks can help to prevent the occurrence of fires. So, here are the top hazards to be aware of in office buildings:
- “Electrical equipment such as photocopiers, not being maintained properly or not being PAT tested (electrical faults are a major cause of fire)
- Paper, card and other flammable materials being stored inappropriately, e.g. under desks, or next to electrical equipment
- Accidents occurring in team kitchens caused by electrical equipment, such as a toaster, being left unattended whilst in use
- Taller buildings are more hazardous to escape from in the event of fire and so special care must be taken to protect escape routes.”
Part of the Fire Risk Assessment, which we will discuss further later in the blog, will outline how these hazards are taken account of and rectified in order to prevent fires in the office environment from occurring.
When it comes to fire safety it is important to understand the legislation in order to ensure that your office setting meets all requirements. Even if you are not a ‘responsible person’, being aware of the legislation can support your knowledge and understanding of fire safety and the safeguarding of your colleagues.
The main document to be aware of is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. The full document can be found here if you’d like further information: Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order. Let’s take a brief overview of this legislation. It begins by stating that a responsible person should take steps to reduce the risk of fire and as far as is ‘reasonably practical’ make sure that everyone on the premises can safely evacuate the building in the event of a fire. It goes on to state that a responsible person must appoint competent persons to assist in the undertaking of preventative and protective measures, primarily through a Fire Risk Assessment.
The competent persons must, therefore:
- Identify fire hazards
- Identify the relevant people who may be at risk
- Eliminate and reduce risk from fire as far as is reasonably possible and provide general fire precautions to deal with any possible risk left
- Provide fire precautions to deal with the identified risks
- Take precautions if there are flammable materials on the premises
- Create a plan to deal with any emergency.
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety Order) is enforced by fire authorities and failure to comply can result in large fines and potential imprisonment imposed upon the responsible persons. The government has published some guidance documents to support responsible persons with fire safety legislation: Guidance.
All places of work are required to carry out a Fire Safety Assessment (FSA), sometimes simply referred to as a ‘risk assessment’. Risk assessments are pretty self-explanatory, they assess risks. In the case of fire safety, it is strongly recommended that a competent, experienced and knowledgeable person undertake the risk assessment on behalf of the responsible person. With over 22,000 fires in non-dwelling buildings each year, it is important that risk assessments are kept up to date and relevant, and should therefore be revisited regularly. It is interesting to note that only 4,950 of these fires are due to arson; the remainder are classed as ‘accidental’.
The risk assessment takes place in five steps:
1. Identify fire hazards
– Sources of ignition
– Sources of fuel
– Sources of oxygen.
2. Identify people at risk
– People in and around the premises
– People especially at risk.
3. Evaluate, remove, reduce and protect from risk
– Evaluate the risk of a fire occurring
– Evaluate the risk to people from fire
– Remove or reduce fire hazards
– Remove or reduce the risks to people:
Detection and warning
Signs and notices
4. Record, plan, inform, instruct and train
– Record significant findings and action taken
– Prepare an emergency plan
– Inform and instruct relevant people; cooperate and coordinate with others
– Provide training.
– Keep assessment under review
– Revise where necessary.
This is the basic outline for an FSA. Of course, for most people, we wouldn’t have the slightest clue about how to identify fire hazards, evaluate the risks and remove the risks, which is why it is recommended that you find a competent person to assist with this. This is part of being a responsible person. That being said, if you’d like to improve your knowledge and start to put together a risk assessment while waiting for the input of a competent person, the government has provided some very in-depth information to help you on your way: Fire Safety Assessment. Please be advised that even if you follow this document, it is still recommended that you seek professional support to carry out a Fire Safety Assessment.
Sharing the information outlined in the Fire Safety Assessment with all employees is extremely important in order to ensure that the risk assessment is followed in case of an emergency, but also so that employees are aware of what needs to be done on a daily basis to ensure that the risk of fire is reduced.
What Fire Safety Measures Should be in Place?
There are plenty of fire safety measures that can be put into place to prevent fires from occurring in an office setting. Some of them are statutory, such as the Fire Safety Assessment and designated responsible person. But others are examples of good practice.
1. Fire Risk Assessment must be completed, and an emergency plan in place. Your emergency plan covers what steps take place in an emergency. For additional guidance about emergency plans, check out this link: London Fire Emergency Plan.
2. Ensure fire doors are maintained and do not wedge them open… Ever!
3. Ensure that all electrical items are tested and maintained. Similarly, your electrical system should be regularly tested too. Usually around once per year at the very least.
4. Don’t overload plug sockets, and check that other members of staff aren’t doing this either.
5. Install fire detection and suppression systems (sprinklers, for example) by a reputable service provider. Make sure they are regularly maintained.
6. Training and fire drills! This is in bold because I cannot understate the importance of training all staff on fire safety and emergency procedures.
7. You must have a designated responsible person and it is useful if all staff know who this is. Staff should also know who the fire wardens are and also where fire extinguishers are and how to use them.
Fire Control Equipment
The control measures and fire safety equipment that you should find in offices include:
- Fire alarms: These will sound when they are triggered either by human intervention or by smoke/heat detectors.
- Smoke detectors: These should be in various spots around the office, as advised and installed by a competent person. They signal the fire alarms when triggered.
- Fire blankets: Fire blankets are essential. They are made from fire retardant material and extinguish small starting fires.
- Fire extinguishers: In offices it is considered to be a necessity to have both water and CO2 fire extinguishers as these should cover all scenarios. The number of fire extinguishers and placements should be outlined in your FSA, with the support of a competent person.
- Emergency lighting: All emergency routes and exits should be well lit. This should include lighting at each door, corridor, change of direction and floor level, staircase, and next to firefighting equipment and alarms.
- Sprinkler systems: Sprinkler systems react very quickly; they can dramatically decrease the heat, flames and smoke produced in a fire.
- Signage: All fire safety signs should contain pictures so anyone can understand them at a glance. Ensure they are well lit so they can be seen in an emergency, even if the power goes out.
- Fire doors: Fire doors should ALWAYS be kept shut. Fire doors should be placed in such a way that they prevent the spread of the fire, while maintaining escape routes.
It is useful if all staff know how to use fire extinguishers, not simply the fire wardens. Familiarising yourself with the fire extinguishers in your office can help to speed up your response in an emergency.
This is marked with a red stripe.
Can be used on any fire involving wood, fabrics, paper, plastics and coal (class A fires). Water must never be used on electrical fires.
Also for class A fires, but can also be used on fires caused by flammable liquids such as spirits and petrol (class B fires).
Can be used on electrical fires and flammable liquids (class B).
This can be used on all types of fire EXCEPT those involving cooking oils, e.g. a deep fat fryer fire. This is the only type of extinguisher that can be used for flammable gas and flammable metal fires (class C and class D).
Can be used on class A fires and those involving cooking fats and oils (class F).
Fire blankets are for use on small fires, usually those involving fat, oil or grease in cooking areas.
Fire extinguishers will be placed in appropriate places at the guidance of a competent person. This usually means that you will only have access to fire extinguishers that are appropriate for the type of situation you are in.
Who is the Responsible Person?
By law, all office settings are required to identify a ‘responsible person’ who has the duty to ensure the safety of all staff and visitors within the setting. The responsible person is the employer or building owner/occupier.
This person must ensure that the Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) is carried out in addition to keeping it up to date. If you are the office manager or owner of the business, you might be the responsible person. If you don’t know who the responsible person is, it is important that you find out. As an employee this allows you to know who to speak to if you have concerns, questions or require support on this topic.
A responsible person must ensure that all the equipment is checked and in working order. This reduces the risk of injury or loss of life. Equipment usually includes fire extinguishers, fire detectors (both smoke and heat), fire doors and fire alarms. It is good practice to have a Fire Logbook, which includes a record of each check and what equipment has been checked. It is recommended that you test your alarm system on a weekly basis, but it should be tested by a competent person at least twice a year. A competent person is, “In general terms, the definition of a competent person is someone who has the necessary skills, experience and knowledge to manage health and safety.” This often means hiring a specialist from an outside agency. For more information on competent persons, please see this link: HSE: Competence.
A responsible person should provide training in order to ensure staff and visitors are aware of fire safety procedures. As part of the role of a responsible person, it is essential to provide training in fire safety for all staff within the setting. This will ensure that the members of staff understand the basic principles of fire safety, in addition to knowing what to do in the case of a fire. The training should be provided or delivered by a person or company knowledgeable about fire safety, but it doesn’t have to be a registered body. For example, the responsible person could choose to deliver the training themselves if they are knowledgeable about fire safety and have undergone training prior to conducting the training. Alternatively, fire safety training can be undertaken via the internet. See the Fire Safety Awareness Course on CPD Online College for a comprehensive training course to help all employees understand how to reduce the risk posed by fire in the workplace: Fire Safety Awareness.
Part of the role of the responsible person is to appoint fire wardens to help them manage fire safety procedures. This is more likely in larger office buildings, or workplaces with a large number of employees. During an emergency, a fire warden must:
- Raise the alarm
- Contact emergency services
- Direct people to leave the building via the most direct exits
- Assist people who need extra support
- Ensure that exit doors are clear of obstructions
- Ensure that all areas are evacuated
- Tackle small fires with a fire extinguisher
- Close doors behind themselves to prevent fire from spreading
- Guide people to assembly points and ensure that everybody is there via roll call.
In a normal risk premises the following applies:
- Fewer than 20 employees: At least one fire warden
- 20-75 employees: At least two fire wardens
- For every additional 75: One additional fire warden.
Fire wardens are not only required when a fire alarm sounds, they are also required to check the building regularly to ensure fire safety. Wardens may also carry out fire drills and safety training for new employees as well as checking smoke alarms.
Top tips for preventing fires from occurring:
- Test smoke alarms regularly
- Ensure electrics are tested often
- Report any live wiring or dodgy plug sockets
- Don’t overload plug sockets
- Ensure appliances are switched off by the plug at the end of the day
- Any fan heaters used in the office shouldn’t be covered up when in use.
Dealing with fires in the workplace can be a tricky topic. Some of the best advice that I can give is that prevention is by far the most important thing. Of course, practising what to do in an emergency is important, but you want to have things in place to prevent you from ever having to react in a real emergency. This is done through accurate risk assessments, which are regularly reviewed.
In addition, you should regularly update fire safety training for all staff in order to teach them how to prevent fires from occurring, as well as what to do in the event of a fire. If you need more information, you should always seek help from a competent and knowledgeable person.