In the UK, the risk of fire is disproportionately high in the catering sector, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why. Fire needs three elements to burn — heat, fuel and oxygen — and kitchens, which are constantly heating,
cooking and processing foods, have all of these in plentiful supply. That’s partly why in 2016/17, according to the National Fire Chiefs Council, there were 1,860 fires in UK food and drink establishments, of which 1,639 were accidental and 221 deliberate. What’s more, these figures don’t include hotels and boarding houses, which also tend to have busy kitchens; these, along with other communal living premises, accounted for more than 2,000 further fires that year.
This sector-specific risk of fire is widely acknowledged, and fire experts have identified many of the risks that are particularly common in catering premises. Most people working with food and drink will now be aware of the risks arising from dirty heat sources that are covered in grease or cooking fat, and of the need to keep cooking equipment (particularly equipment using heat) well maintained and inspected. Most kitchen staff know that over-heating oils during cooking is a fire risk, and adjust their techniques accordingly.
But how many also think to keep the ducting in extraction systems clean, to ensure fire-safe separation between units (particularly where there is residential accommodation close to a cooking area) and to regularly check the safety of all electrical equipment in the kitchen, right down to the kitchen radio and charging cables for mobile devices? All of these are fire hazards, too. Tumble dryers are another common source of fire in hospitality sites (especially when they are used continually without the lint having been removed). So are items used in hospitality but not necessarily within the kitchen: shisha and barbecue coals, patio heaters and their gas supplies can all start fires.
In real life, it’s easy for details like these to get lost in the day-to-day realities and challenges of running a catering business, and as we have seen, fires happen. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that, due to a lack of innovation in the sector, the fire prevention advice given to caterers is needlessly confusing and hasn’t really been updated since the 1970s.
That, however, is changing. New innovation in fire protection means that kitchens and hospitality sites can be protected more easily and effectively than before. It’s time for caterers, and those who advise them, to catch up and put the standards into effect, increasing their own and customers’ safety and reducing the likelihood of a catastrophic fire that could easily cost them their business.
Why is it so important to prevent fires?
There are several answers to this question. The first is obvious: fires kill and harm people, and destroy lives. Thankfully, the rate of death by fire in the UK has been dropping since 2010, but it is still too high and it only takes one major event, such as the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, to remind us how horrific a fire can be and how crucial it is to minimise risk.
A more pragmatic response to the question arises from the fact that the overwhelming majority of businesses affected by fire go on to fail within 18 months of that event. So, from a commercial point of view, prevention is quite clearly better than cure.
What fire prevention advice is currently given to catering businesses?
There are two strands to fire prevention advice; advice regarding risk and advice regarding fire-fighting equipment. Let’s examine them in turn.
The primary legislation relating to fire and applicable to almost all businesses in England and Wales is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, often referred to as ‘the Fire Safety Order’. This sets out various requirements and responsibilities. According to law, all businesses that employ five staff or more and/or own or occupy a building other than a private home must have a fire risk assessment and an emergency plan. These are the basics of fire risk management.
In Scotland, the applicable law is the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005, supported by the Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006.
In order to meet their legal duties, caterers need a comprehensive understanding of all of the fire risks they encounter and as we have already seen, that’s not always easy. If businesses are aware of and compliant with their regulatory duties across the board — for example, if they have all electrical equipment tested according to the regulations, store all ingredients and equipment in accordance with best practice and follow HSE guidance to the letter — they can probably feel fairly confident, but even so they will need to record and document according to the law. Many businesses, however, find this area so complex that they call in experts to help, often at substantial cost.
The situation regarding fire-fighting equipment is, if anything, even more complicated. Caterers are usually told to have several types of fire extinguisher/fire-fighting equipment in place. A typical piece of advice might suggest:
- A fire blanket for pan fires/small fires
- A wet chemical extinguisher; this is frequently identified as the only type of extinguisher to be used on deep fat fryers
- Foam extinguishers for ‘general fires’ (which may then be defined by the person or body giving the advice) and/or powder extinguishers (at this point various caveats will likely be given around the health and safety of users and situations in which powder extinguishers are suitable)
- Carbon dioxide extinguishers for electrical fires
- Water extinguishers to be considered for customer-facing areas (within certain parameters)
- Buckets of sand for barbecues and similar outdoor fire hazards
Of course, in most cases the advisor will end such counsel by reminding the caterer that all such equipment must be stored and used appropriately and regularly serviced.
This is all hideously complicated and what’s more, a huge headache for businesses who must train all staff to know which fire extinguisher can be used for which type of fire, which must be avoided and when, and so forth. They must also provide refresher training to make sure that knowledge persists within the organisation.
When one considers the many practical challenges arising from such complexity, especially in a risk-heavy environment like a kitchen, it’s hardly surprising that so many food and drink establishments suffer fires every year.
The good news is that now, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Innovation with a single fire-fighting solution can change the entire landscape
The introduction of a single solution that can fight any fire is a huge step forward for fire protection in general, and for caterers and hospitality providers in particular. The higher-than-average, sector-specific risks faced by such businesses have made fire protection complex and challenging for the last five decades, with a plethora of options and training, compliance and regulatory demands.
However, such complexities are becoming a thing of the past, with solutions that can be used against electrical, fuel, gas, oil, fat, metal and solid combustible fires growing now in demand. Having the same extinguisher can be used in all fire classes (A, B, C, D, E and F) dramatically reduces (a) the need for multiple extinguisher types and understanding of when to use each of them — which may in turn generate a faster and more confident response to any fire — and (b) the complexity of fire-fighting knowledge that businesses must spread and sustain throughout their staff.
Since the use of inappropriate extinguishers can also increase the severity of a fire, the sheer simplicity of this new approach also seems likely to drive down risk and minimise harm. That includes the risk and harm caused by losing a business after a fire, a risk that currently runs at around 80%.
The fire protection industry has been stagnant for half a century, and such a huge innovation after so many years without change means that almost all of the fire protection advice and ‘best practice’ currently available to the catering and hospitality sector is now badly out of date. Until that changes, businesses in this sector will continue to bear a heavy (and needless) burden of complex requirements and elevated risk.
Ultimately, the fire protection sector will change and catch up, but there is no reason for the catering sector to wait for them. There is nothing to stop catering firms purchasing the new extinguishers (which are available in various formats) and nothing to stop them raising this issue with any fire prevention consultants or other experts they choose to work with. Indeed, the response of those experts may give businesses an insight into how up-to-date (or otherwise) their own fire protection representative is.
In time, the many advantages of a ‘one for all’ fire extinguishing solution will inevitably win the day and we will all stop worrying whether the fire extinguisher in our hands is going to make the fire better or much, much worse. But in sectors where the risk of fire is high, such as food and drink, the benefits are greater than elsewhere and delay potentially more costly. For catering and related businesses, the time to change is now.