Share these prevention steps to mitigate construction fire hazards
Building sites are hotbeds for construction fire hazards (pun intended). Every site has combustible waste materials, solvents, hot works processes and unfinished electrical systems. Add in the risk of vandalism and worker carelessness, and you have a volatile menace on your hands. Your client should have a prevention program to abate construction fire hazards, but it’s a good idea to work with them to update their program.
OSHA requires employers to develop a site-specific fire prevention program for all phases of construction, repair, alteration or demolition work. Their Fire Protection and Prevention document provides requirements for the availability of fire protection and suppression equipment. It also includes preventative actions needed such as eliminating ignition sources and providing appropriate storage of combustible materials.
Construction fire safety: An overview
Fire is a very real threat on any construction site. Too often, fires result from such simple causes as careless smoking, poor housekeeping, sloppy electrical tool maintenance, use of portable heating, faulty wiring or lack of adequate fire watch.
“Careless or disgruntled workers, or that ever-present clever employee taking shortcuts, can create fire hazards in the course of a work shift by rigging, sabotaging, or simple laziness,” says ELCOSH (Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety & Health). The article goes on to say that, while job superintendents can’t guarantee fire safety on any construction job site, they can take necessary steps to reasonably to ensure a safe job site.
The Hartford lists these elements that should be addressed in a prevention program for construction fire hazards:
- Flammable or combustible liquid storage areas
- Bulk storage of chemicals
- Accumulations of combustible waste materials
- Smoking policy
- Temporary heating devices (i.e. electric, propane, natural gas, kerosene, fuel oil, coal oil, solid fuel)
- Electrical wiring and equipment
- Welding operations, especially overhead welding and cutting
- Internal combustion engines, including exhaust sparks and fuel supplies
- Fire protection equipment and systems (extinguishers, fire hoses, sprinklers, standpipes)
- Alarm systems
- Fire cutoff devices (i.e. automatic door closing devices)
Let’s take a deeper dive into some of these elements.
Good housekeeping as a deterrent for construction fire hazards
Work with your client to identify problem areas and develop a simple and effective program for fire prevention. Ensure that site premises are clearly marked and public access to the site is prohibited. Daily clear the premises of all kinds of refuse, scrap, brush, weeds and process waste. Ensure that areas in and around the building are free from packing materials such as paper, plastic, straw and empty wooden crates. Here are more tips:
- Do not store materials or equipment within exit or egress areas.
- Establish a “No Smoking/Open Flame” policy and enforce it. Post “No Smoking or Open Flame” signs.
- Provide a specific eating area with waste receptacles.
- Ensure there are dumpsters or metal bins available for readily combustible waste materials such as oily rags.
- Never allow oily or solvent-soaked rags or materials to accumulate, especially in unventilated areas.
- Never store slaked lime where it can become moist; when damp, it becomes a fire hazard.
- When stacking combustible material, do not exceed a height of 20 feet.
- Clear spaces around stacks of stored materials with adequate walkways.
- Ensure stacks of materials are arranged so that they don’t impede fire sprinkler systems (if they exist).
- When storing outdoor materials, keep them away from the building at a distance of 10 feet or more. Keep proper clearance from any lights or heating units.
- Provide adequate access to storage places for firefighters.
Combustible materials as fire hazards
When buildings under construction approach completion of the shell erection, the specialty trade contractors come in. With them come the packaging, finishes and services, increasing the amount of potential fuel for a fire.
A structural steel building with noncombustible curtain walls contains less fire fuel than a wood frame building. A frame building can become a vertical kindling pile before the gypsum board goes in. That’s why it’s crucial to reassess the site’s potential for fire throughout the construction process.
ELCOSH lists these additional tips:
- Appropriately store paint, lacquer, flammable solvents, thinners and other flammables; clearly label this area as flammable storage.
- Carry flammable liquids only in safety containers and not in open tins or buckets, etc. Ensure that they’re handled only at a safe distance from possible sources of ignition. Train employees in the use and safety precautions for flammables.
- Provide suitable non-sparking tools for use in places where flammable liquids are kept or used.
- Regularly inspect machinery, with the emphasis on lubrication and cleanliness.
- Provide drip trays.
- Ensure proper storage of special items such as LPG cylinders and other flammable materials.
- Take steps to prevent floors and walls becoming soaked with oil.
- Keep heating appliances at a safe distance from woodworking and combustible building items.
Electrical items as construction hazards
Defects in electrical equipment and temporary extension wiring are the main culprits for electrical fires. Remind your construction client to follow these steps:
- Regularly check electrical tools and equipment for defective wiring.
- Secure portable heaters so that they cannot be knocked over.
- Keep temporary extension wiring to a minimum; take care not to overload existing circuits.
- Minimize the use of portable lamps and ensure they have appropriate guards
- When equipment is not in use, be sure the main switches of electrical circuits are in the off position.
- Maintain lockout/tagout good practices when needed.
- Ensure fire equipment is in good working order at all times and accessible for immediate use.
Hot work/welding as construction fire hazards
Remove all fire hazards before performing hot work. Train workers to also be aware of all flammable vapors and combustible materials, removing these hazards before beginning hot work. Appropriate firefighting equipment should be ready nearby. As a precaution, assign a fire watch to guard against fire while welding. The fire watch should be trained in fire extinguisher use and have an extinguisher in their possession while hot work is being performed. They must also know where and how to sound the fire alarm. The fire watch will also be on guard 30 minutes after the hot work is completed to detect and extinguish any fire that may be smoldering.
Maintaining fire extinguishers
One of the first lines of defense in a small fire is a fire extinguisher. Multi-level structures should have access to an extinguisher on each floor. These should be easy to find and easy to access. In case of a fire emergency, any worker should be able to grab an extinguisher within 100 feet. OSHA 1926.150(c)(1)(i) says that an extinguisher shall be provided for every 3,000 square feet of the protected building.
Extinguishers cannot be rated less than 2A. If this is not feasible, one 55-gallon open drum of water with two fire pails may be used as a substitute. In the winter, protect drums from freezing.
Because various trades bring different materials that may require specifically rated fire extinguishers, it’s important to understand each site’s various hazards and ensure the correct extinguishers are present on site.
Class A – Ordinary combustibles
Class B – Flammable liquids
Class C – Electrical appliances
Class D – Combustible metals
Class E – Flammable gases
When an extinguisher is used, it must be serviced and refilled, regardless the amount used. Inspect fire extinguishers regularly to ensure they’re fully charged and have not been damaged.
Train all workers in the proper use of an extinguisher for a small fire. Instruct them to remember to PASS:
Pull the pin at the top of the extinguisher. This releases a locking mechanism, allowing the extinguisher to discharge.
Aim at the base of the fire, not the flames. The fuel at the base must be extinguished to put out the fire.
Squeeze the lever slowly to release the extinguishing agent. Release the handle to stop the discharge.
Sweep from side to side. Move the fire extinguisher back and forth in a sweeping motion until the fire is completely out. Stay at a safe distance several feet away, and then move towards the fire once it begins to diminish. Train employees to read the instructions on the different fire extinguishers, as they recommend operation from varying distances.
If the fire isn’t eliminated with the extinguisher, sound the fire alarm, call the fire department and evacuate the jobsite, meeting at the designated spot to account for all workers. Their safety is more important than product damage.
Regular inspections and training help combat construction fire hazards
Conduct worksite inspections on a regular basis and documented in writing. Superintendents, foremen, and /or safety committee members are usually assigned the task of inspecting the worksite. The fire prevention plan should identify responsibilities for the inspection, maintenance, and testing of fire protection equipment and employee alarm systems.
Train all workers in the following:
- A review of the company’s fire prevention program
- Potential fire hazards in their work area
- Control devices or equipment in their work area
- Potential ignition sources and controls in place
Provide training for newly hired employees, whenever new fire hazards or ignition sources are introduced, whenever the layout or design of the site changes, and at least annually.