Recent news that even proprietary skin creams are a potential fire hazard linked to dozens of deaths is a reminder that while fire often strikes with little warning, eliminating fire risks is a methodical process with continuous room for improvement. Jon Herbert reports.

Data collected recently by the BBC is said to show that skin creams containing paraffin used to treat medical conditions such as eczema and psoriasis can create a fatal fire risk.

In a recent report (19 March 2017), BBC Radio 5 Live report found that creams used regularly tend to accumulate on clothing, bedding or skin and can, under certain conditions, leave a flammable paraffin residue, which is easily set alight by even the simple act of smoking.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency updated its guidance after the initial report of incidents, and now requires that all creams containing paraffin should carry a warning. Previously, the agency asked that a flammability warning be shown if the paraffin content was more than 50%.

However, the channel’s researchers say that they have detected 37 fire deaths in England since 2010 linked to the creams. Their evidence was found in responses from 6 out of 53 fire brigades contacted in England; 28 fatalities were reported by the London Fire Brigade.

Continuous diligence

While the BBC’s findings reveal a little-known potential risk — people may use the creams at work or at home — it is a reminder that while the time and location of fires is almost by definition unpredictable, the causes of fire are generally predictable.

As the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) points out, most fires are preventable, albeit that it is important to keep up to date with evolving hazard information and new developments.

The HSE also notes on its fire safety pages that three things are needed to start a fire.

  1. Ignition sources (heat) can include heaters, lighting, naked flames, electrical equipment, cigarettes and matches, or anything that may get very hot or cause sparks.

  2. Fuel sources (something that burns) include wood, paper, plastic, rubber or foam, loose packaging materials, waste rubbish and furniture.

  3. Oxygen is available wherever air can get to a fire.

Further advice and the law

The HSE fire safety microsite also offers many common sense, practical good housekeeping tips and advice, plus further valuable online data and resources.

From a legal perspective, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 covers general fire safety in England and Wales. In Scotland, the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 and Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006 make similar requirements, as do the Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and the Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010 in Northern Ireland.

The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) also require employers to assess the risk of fires and explosions associated with working with dangerous substances, and to eliminate, or reduce, these risks.

Professional advice is needed with all fire-related management issues. However, another helpful starting point and refresher of what is involved in good workplace fire safety practice is the Government’s current online guidance at www.gov.uk.

This explains who is responsible and responsibilities, the definition of premises, penalties and enforcement, fire risk assessments, evacuation plans, fire safety equipment, drills and training, plus building alterations, enforcement and prohibition notices and appeals.

Fire safety in the workplace

Who is responsible?

The first question many people ask is who is responsible for fire safety in a business or other non-domestic premises? The answer in England and Wales is a designated “responsible person”. This may be an employer, owner, landlord, occupier, or anyone else with control of the premises. Alternatively, it might be a facilities or building manager, managing agent or risk assessor.

If more than one responsible person is appointed, they must work together to meet their joint workplace responsibilities under a Fire Safety Order. This also applies if paying guests are involved, as in the case of a bed-and-breakfast business, guesthouse, or let self-catering property.

What are their responsibilities?

A responsible person, or persons, must:

  • carry out a fire risk assessment of all premises involved and review it regularly

  • inform staff, or their representatives, about identified risks

  • put in place, and maintain, appropriate fire safety measures

  • plan for an emergency

  • provide staff with up-to-date information, fire safety instructions and training.

What are non-domestic premises?

Non-domestic premises include all:

  • workplaces and commercial premises

  • premises that the public can access

  • common areas of multi-occupied residential buildings.

How does this apply to shared premises?

Shared premises are more likely to have more than one responsible person. This makes co-ordinating fire safety plans essential to ensure everyone in, on, or around, the premises are safe. For common or shared areas, the responsible person is the landlord, freeholder or managing agent.

What happens during alterations, extensions and new building?

During building work, meeting building regulations includes designing fire safety into any proposed new building or extension. More information is available online through the Government website Planning Portal link.

What penalties and enforcement notices are involved?

Failing to meet Fire Safety Regulations can lead to fines or prison. Local fire and rescue authorities may inspect premises and issue fire safety notices outlining essential changes.

Fire risk assessments

Responsible persons must carry out — and review regularly — a fire risk assessment of all premises to identify what is needed to prevent fire and keep people safe. Written records are mandatory if a business has five people or more.

How do you carry out an assessment?

Five vital steps are involved.

  1. Identifying fire hazards.

  2. Identifying people at risk.

  3. Evaluating, removing or reducing risks.

  4. Recording findings, preparing an emergency plan and providing training.

  5. Reviewing and updating fire risk assessments regularly.

Reviewing and updating fire risk assessments regularly

Threats and remedies don’t stand still. Constant vigilance is required.

The fire safety risk assessment chart available online provides specific step-by-step information about making sure a fire risk assessment review is always fit for purpose.

An assessment must take into account any changes in:

  • well-marked emergency routes and exits

  • fire detection and warning systems

  • fire-fighting equipment location, capability and maintenance

  • removal or safe storage of dangerous substances

  • an efficient emergency fire evacuation plan

  • the needs of vulnerable people, including the elderly, young children or those with disabilities

  • well-positioned information for employees and other people on site

  • staff fire safety training programmes and refreshers.

Help with assessments

Responsible persons can carry out fire risk assessments themselves. Alternatively, they may use standard fire safety risk assessment guides, or employ a “competent person” such as a professional risk assessor. Should there be any doubt over the quality and suitability of a risk assessment, local Fire and Rescue Services are often able to give expert advice. But they can’t carry out risk assessments for you.

Assessment guides

The Government website www.gov.uk provides individual links to a full list of information for different public and private property types. These can be used as guides in preparing risk assessments.

In addition, there is online guidance to preparing risk assessments in construction, purpose-built flat blocks and other types of housing relevant to landlords.

Fire safety and evacuation plans

Competent evacuation plans are absolutely vital and must involve:

  • a clear passageway to all escape routes

  • marked escape routes that are as short and direct as possible

  • enough exits and routes for everyone on site to escape safely

  • emergency doors that always open easily

  • emergency lighting wherever needed

  • training which ensures that all employees know of and can use escape routes

  • a safe meeting point for staff.

People with mobility needs

Special arrangements are needed for people with mobility needs, eg wheelchair users on upper floors.

Fire safety equipment, drills and training

Fire detection and warning systems

Functioning fire detection and warning systems are obligatory — often with a variety of detectors depending on building type and the nature of work being carried out.

Fire-fighting equipment

The types of equipment needed may vary between different business premises. However, all equipment must be installed, tested and maintained properly, with training for safe staff use.

Maintenance and testing

Regularly scheduled checks must ensure that:

  • fire alarm systems work properly

  • emergency lighting functions correctly

  • faults in systems and equipment are recorded properly

  • escape routes are kept clear with the floor in good condition

  • fire escapes can be opened easily

  • automatic fire doors close correctly

  • fire exit signs are positioned in the right place.

Fire drills and training

New staff must be trained when they first start to work; all employees must be told about new fire risks.

At least one fire drill should be carried out annually, with the results recorded and kept as part of the fire safety and evacuation plan.

Enforcement, appeals and penalties

Local fire and rescue authorities have the power to visit premises to check that fire risk assessment and fire prevention measures are appropriate. However, fire safety officers can help businesses and responsible persons to understand rules and comply with them.

If they think fire safety measures are not adequate, they can also take action to put things right. One option is issuing an informal notice suggesting detailed improvements.

A more serious step could be issuing a formal fire safety notice, in which case they will explain how to correct problems described in the notice.

Alterations notice

Another option is an alterations notice should your premises currently have high safety risks, or if premise use is changed in the future.

Enforcement notice

Businesses can also receive an enforcement notice if the fire and rescue authority discovers a serious risk that is not managed. Again, it will specify what improvements are needed, and by when.

Prohibition notice

In the most severe cases, prohibition notices can be made that take immediate effect if the fire and rescue authority believes a fire risk is so great that access to your premises must be stopped or restricted.

Appeals

Notices are serious, whatever the financial cost. Informal review with the fire and rescue authority may be possible if a business disagrees with a fire safety notice decision. Appeals must be made to a local magistrates’ court within 21 days of a notice being received.

In certain circumstances, a business and its local fire and rescue authority can request a “determination” to resolve a dispute from the Communities Secretary.

Penalties

Minor safety regulation infringements can attract a fine of up to £5000. Major penalties may result in unlimited fines and up to two years in prison.

Last reviewed 13 April 2017