New guidance on construction fire safety

United Kingdom
Alison Brown of the Healthcare Group reviews new guidelines on construction safety


As part of its general review of safety in construction work the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published new guidance for designers and those managing and carrying out construction projects involving substantial fire risks. "Fire Safety in Construction Work" (HS(G) 168) (the "Guidance") contains advice on the fire risks which may occur during construction work and identifies the obligations which duty holders under the Construction, Design and Management Regulations 1994 ("CDM Regulations") have to prevent those risks arising and to manage any fires which may occur.


The Joint Code


The introduction to the Guidance makes clear that it is consistent with the "Joint Code of Practice on the Protection from Fire on Construction Sites and Buildings Undergoing Renovation" which is, in practice, treated by industry as setting down minimum standards for fire safety on major construction projects. The Joint Code was developed by the insurance and construction industries and lays down the standards of fire safety which insurers generally expect construction companies and property developers to meet as a minimum condition of insurance cover on potentially high risk projects. It remains to be seen whether the new HSE guidance will eventually replace the Joint Code as setting out the basic standards of fire safety on construction sites required for insurance coverage purposes.

Contents


The Guidance deals with the fire hazards associated with issues such as electrical installations, smoking, storage of liquid petroleum gas, storage of combustible materials and site security. It also addresses means of escape, emergency lighting, monitoring general fire precautions, compartmentation and the siting and security of temporary accommodation units. The Guidance is divided into 6 sections:



  • How to stop a fire occurring
  • Reducing ignition sources
  • General fire precautions
  • Emergency procedures
  • Temporary accommodation units
  • Sleeping accommodation


A helpful appendix to the Guidance sets out the general obligations that duty holders under the CDM Regulations will owe in order to prevent fires occurring and deal with any fire which may arise in respect of each of these areas. Although the Guidance is clearly directed at significant construction work to which the CDM Regulations apply - a separate information sheet "Construction Fire Safety" has been produced for construction projects with lower fire risks, such as low-rise housing developments - it makes clear that all managers responsible for control of construction work need to be aware of the Guidance and apply it wherever necessary, irrespective of whether the project is covered by the CDM Regulations.


Responsibilities for fire safety - the client


All duty holders under the CDM Regulations have responsibilities for fire safety. The client's duties include appointing planning supervisors and principal contractors who are competent and adequately resourced to deal with - amongst other things - fire risks.


The client also plays an important role in preventing fire occurring by providing adequate information to the planning supervisor on possible fire risks on the site, for example, regarding the location of buried services, previous uses of the site, and special precautions required because of the location of fire sensitive activities on nearby premises.


If, during the construction phase, the client continues to share the premises with construction workers or existing fire precautions need to be maintained the client will also need to provide the planning supervisor with information on the fire precautions in place and co-ordinate relevant emergency procedures.


Responsibilities for fire safety - the designer


The design of the project may have a major impact on fire safety issues arising during construction particularly if the works involve use of significant quantities of flammable materials.


The phasing of the work may also influence fire risks, for example, the Guidance recommends that early installation of primary internal stairways should be considered to provide protected means of escape from the earliest stages of the project.


In general designers are responsible for ensuring that fire safety issues are taken into account when designing the project so that this includes features which improve general fire precaution standards during the construction phase.


Responsibilities for fire safety - the planning supervisor


The Guidance emphasises that fire safety issues need to be addressed in the pre-tender stage health and safety plan, which is the responsibility of the planning supervisor. Information on design conclusions and other matters relevant to fire safety during the construction work must be included in the pre-tender health and safety plan so that this information is available to the principal contractor when developing the health and safety plan for the construction phase. This may include providing information on available access for fire services, details of any intended construction processes or methods which may lead to an increased fire risk, the location on site of flammable substances and gas services, the nature of any nearby activities and details of any continued occupation of the site.


Responsibilities for fire safety - the principal contractor


The principal contractor is responsible for drawing up the construction phase health and safety plan, including site rules prescribing day to day standards of fire safety to be observed on site during the construction works. The form of the site rules will depend upon the nature of the project but these are likely to include standards relating to rubbish storage and clearance, storage and use of flammable substances and other methods of reducing ignition sources.


The principal contractor is also responsible for devising an emergency plan setting out evacuation and other arrangements if a fire occurs. He will also need to take account of general fire precautions in deciding upon the construction methods and sequence of works. The construction phase health and safety plan should also address detailed operational matters such as the number of location of fire points and the inspection and maintenance of fire fighting equipment.


Responsibilities for fire safety - other contractors


Contractors and their employees must be familiar with and comply with site rules. They should also inform principal contractors of any practical difficulties which arise in complying with the health and safety plan or where fire safety issues are discovered which are not addressed by the existing plan, for example, if flammable material is discovered during work, rubbish skips are not being emptied, or electrical installations or equipment are damaged.


Conclusion


All those involved in the construction process - clients, designers and planning supervisors, as well as the principal contractor and contractors who have day to day responsibility for the construction phases of the work - need to be familiar with this new HSE guidance as this is likely to be treated as a laying down minimum standards for ensuring fire safety on all substantial construction projects.