Site fires turn up the heat
With construction site fires hitting the headlines Geoff Wilkinson MCIOB reports on the fall-out.
A serious blaze at a Hampshire construction site last month thrust the safety of buildings under construction back into the spotlight. The blaze ripped through a partially built four-storey timber-framed care home in Basingstoke and follows similar fires in Glasgow and Peckham earlier this year. Press reports indicate that the police are treating the incident as arson and have arrested four youths aged between 12 and 15.
The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) has warned construction site managers to be extra vigilant against the risk of arson. “They need to ensure their security arrangements are robust to reduce the risk of fires being started,” said chief fire officer Peter Holland.
The CFOA is also concerned that a fire involving a timber-framed building under construction will result in loss of life.
The Department of Communities and Local Government, which oversees the Fire and Rescue Service, is commissioning research into fire fighting in timber-framed buildings and also fire spread within and beyond such buildings. The CFOA is calling for this research to be accelerated and the findings published as a matter of urgency.
Separately, CLG has, for the first time, published figures that show that the number of recorded fires involving buildings under construction totalled 450, more than one a day. (But the actual number of construction site fires, reported and unreported, is much higher — the HSE estimates as many as 11 incidents every day). The 2009/10 figures from CLG also reveal that that of the 450 recorded incidents, 50 were in timber frame buildings under construction. This ratio of 1:8 is much greater during the construction phase, than in completed buildings where the ratio drops to 1:59 (802 incidents out of 47,600 fires), confirming that once completed, timber frame performs as well as any other form of construction.
As a result of the recent incidents, enforcing bodies are taking a more proactive role in identifying high-risk projects. Phil Burgess, the inspector in charge of fire in the HSE Construction Division is quoted as saying “we are going to try to raise the profile of fire safety in construction… particularly high-risk buildings such as timber frame, refurbishment and tall buildings”. To support this initiative the HSE is in the process of updating its guide, HSG 168 Fire Safety on Construction Sites, which is due to be published later this month.
The HSE is not the only body interested in fire safety: because of the overlapping nature of construction and other fire safety legislation, inspectors from local fire authorities and Building Control officers may also have enforcing roles.
As part of moves to co-ordinate these roles, Building Control departments were asked at the start of this year to notify the fire services of any high-risk construction projects when they start. And in September, the HSE and the Building Control Alliance signed a concordat, under which Building Control offices will notify HSE of any safety concerns, including fire risks, they identify whilst on site (see p5).
Although these new procedures are still embryonic, it is clear the HSE is determined to prevent further incidents occurring. I am aware of two recent occasions when its inspectors intervened in projects in East London. In both cases, the contractor had produced a Fire Risk Assessment, but the HSE felt it was not robust enough and required further assessment before work could continue.
There is growing concern that the effects of radiated heat, flame and burning embers from a construction site fire spread much further than previously recorded. Traditionally, a Fire Risk Assessment has been limited to addressing the issues associated with the site, such as hot works and means of escape for the workforce.
However, in the past two months and in response to the latest fires, the HSE has revised its interpretation of how far fire risk extends, expanding the definition of persons at risk beyond the boundary of the construction site to occupants of adjacent buildings and fire fighters.
In practice, this means contractors are now expected to engage a fire specialist to undertake a detailed fire risk assessment, including calculating acceptable boundary distances using BRE 187 External Fire Spread: Building Separation and Boundary Distances as a guide. It is also necessary to consider installing passive fire protection (eg fire doors) and active measures (eg smoke vents and sprinklers) as early as possible.
The final area that HSE expects the assessment to address is preventing arson at source, with 24-hour monitored CCTV now being a common requirement. These measures add significant cost to a project, and bid and estimating teams, as well as site managers, need to be aware of these new requirements.
Geoff Wilkinson is managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants and vice chair of the CIOB Building Standards faculty
Hear hear for muff
Safety firm Arco has launched a combined head-set and protective ear muff for high-noise environments such as building sites. The Sensear Smart Muff range suppresses background noise while isolating and enhancing speech and can be connected to a mobile phone via Bluetooth.
Sperian shades it
Outdoor workers’ eyes are vulnerable to sun damage, although problems can take years to develop. Sperian Protection’s shades eliminate 99.9% of UV radiation. The Solar Pro range has a wraparound design to maximise peripheral vision and seven different lens tint options are available.
3M has launched a modular range of air powered filtering devices. The Versaflo Respiratory Protecive System has several different attachments to protect the head, eyes and ears as well as the lungs. Part of the range, the 3M Versaflo TR-300 Powered
Air Respirator, has a filter which captures dust, mist and fumes.