Who’s in charge? What do I do? Reducing the threat of fire to businesses

Who’s in charge? What do I do? Reducing the threat of fire to businesses

A fire in the workplace can have devastating consequences for everyone involved; from employees and customers, to the business itself.

In fact, research from the ABI (Association of British Insurers) shows that 75% of businesses do not recover from a serious fire.

With the average cost of a fire in a commercial building estimated to stand at £58,100, the odds are stacked against a business being able to survive the repercussions of a serious blaze. And with statistics showing that fires in the workplace are more common than most people realise, it is essential that businesses do everything possible to prevent falling victim to them. In Greater London alone, there are between 20-22,000 fires a year in non-residential buildings.

Duty of care

As an employer, it is your duty to have stringent policies and procedures in place to handle potential fire hazards. These policies usually include carrying out regular fire risk assessments, warning employees of any dangers, implementing appropriate fire safety measures, planning for emergencies and ensuring your staff are prepared for such an incident. There is clearly no room for error in fire safety procedures. Yet, despite best efforts, preventing a fire from sparking is not always achievable - accidents can happen, and unforeseeable incidents do occur.

But, whilst every business has a fire safety procedure in place, how many employees really know what to do if a fire breaks out? Employees might know who the fire marshal is, where the fire exits are and where the designated fire evacuation meeting point can be found. They might even know where the fire extinguishers are kept. But, how many of them know how to use a fire extinguisher? Or, more importantly, which fire extinguisher to use.

Time is of the essence when it comes to fire safety, but currently, the confusion over which fire extinguisher should be used, in which scenario, could be unnecessarily lengthening the time taken to put it out.

Using the wrong fire extinguisher can also have dangerous consequences and may even make the situation worse. For example, if an individual attempted to extinguish an electrical fire with water they could be putting themselves at risk of an electric shock. A CO2 extinguisher handled incorrectly can cause frostbite to the hands of the operator, and water sprayed into a pan fire can ignite a flare up into a fireball.  

This uncertainty is often the reason that many employees are unsure if they’ll do more harm than good when faced with the decision of either tackling a small fire, or vacating the building. Ordering all staff to leave the building on discovering any fire might sound like the simplest and safest plan. However, by doing this, employers are forgetting their legal obligations, as the designated ‘responsible person’, to surrounding life and property, the environment (foam, for example, is toxic) and the safety of the fire crews that may have to risk their lives to tackle a large blaze that’s out of control.

Turning the table

With 60 per cent of office fires estimated to occur during working hours, it makes sense that more small fires could be extinguished if staff were better equipped to tackle them before they become unmanageable. It’s time we re-think how fires are dealt with and tackle the problem through both innovation and improved staff training.

We need to replace rows of different fire extinguishers, with confusing warning labels depicting what they can and can’t be used on, with a one-size-fits-all solution. One extinguisher, all fires, and no dangerous consequences for holding it the wrong way, or risk of dangerous chemicals harming the environment.

Then we need to equip staff with the skills, training and confidence to pick up a single extinguisher and tackle a blaze when necessary. Yes, there will always be incidents that cannot be tackled with extinguishers, where it’s clearly safer to evacuate, but this cannot be the policy for every single fire.

The twenty-first century has seen a number of catastrophic fire disasters, with consequences that have cost millions of pounds, resources and, most importantly, lives. Too many of these devastating fires could have been easily stopped in their tracks if caught earlier.

In an era where we are harnessing the power of innovation to improve our lives, from 3D imaging to visualise health and safety hazards and biometric collars to keep us awake at the wheel, knowing which fire extinguisher to use on what fire shouldn’t be a cause of confusion. The time for change is now, we need to clear up confusion with a single solution for every fire, and empower employees to use it, when safe to do so. Lives and livelihoods might depend on it.