14 quick tips for fire safety on construction sites

Fire safety on construction sites is a real issue, because of the changing nature of the hazards as building work progresses. Our 14 quick tips represent the tip of an iceberg of information, but are designed to kick-start your thought processes, and urge you to further reading on the topic.

Construction sites are like living things, metamorphosing from apparent chaos into beautiful buildings just as caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies.

Their transformation is punctuated by a hazard profile that changes by the day or even the hour, which highlights the need for constant vigilance on all aspects of safety.

Significant amongst them is the need for fire safety on construction sites, because there are all manner of fire hazards, some of which aren’t immediately obvious, but all of which have the potential to snare the unwary.

That’s why our 14 quick tips are so important. Here they are, in no priority order (but we’ve listed them alphabetically, for the sake of neatness.) Some are obvious, some less so, but all involve their own particular dangers.

Our 14 quick tips for fire safety on construction sites

1. Control: Control is key to maintaining high levels of fire safety on construction sites, and applies in one form or another to everything that follows. Only by understanding the nature of the hazards can you protect against them.

2. Alarms: If an incident occurs, everyone needs to know as quickly as possible. Fire alarms are the best way to do this, and on a large site they’ll need to be interconnected for maximum effectiveness.

3. Arson: Fire fascinates, almost as much as the opportunity to explore construction sites. Put up stout fences and consider employing security.

4. Bonfires: No material can be burned on a construction site without permission, and must be governed by a permit system. Even then, they must be well away from buildings and any flammable material. Never leave them unattended.

5. Changing flammability: the flammability of materials can change, making them much more volatile. Coal dust, for instance, can spontaneously combust, whilst the solid material won’t. The same is true of materials that may be used in construction. It’s important to understand the materials on your site. Suppliers’ data sheets should explain it.

6. Demolition: Before something goes up, there’s every chance that something must come down first. Be alive to the dangers of underground services that may not have been properly recorded, like electricity supplies and gas mains, or hidden tank structures containing flammable residues. There’s nothing like an unexplained pipe at the bottom of a trench to focus the mind… If in doubt, call in the experts.

7. Electricity: Never jury-rig electrical connections. Systems should be set up to have sufficient capacity for the demands to be put on them. Overloading causes heat; heat starts fires.

8. Escape routes: Don’t add Fire Exit notices where exits don’t exist. Don’t rely on real escape routes that don’t have fire doors; they can quickly become smoke-logged. Keep part of scaffolding unshrouded as a safe route for escape from higher parts of an unfinished building. Seal windows or other openings close to fire escapes.

9. Fuel sources: These are everywhere on construction sites. From accumulated rubbish like packing materials, discarded timber off-cuts, paint, thinners, and flammable gases, the list is large. Good housekeeping is key here; Keep rubbish in one place, and dispose of it frequently. Take care with the use of flammable liquids, especially where they may be decanted. For example, fuel mobile plant in designated areas, rather than when the plant happens to be. Have absorbents to hand in case of spills, and insist that PPE contaminated with spilled fuel should be changed at once.

10. Ignition sources: Any kind of heat source can start a fire, if it’s close enough to something that will burn. Even focussed sunlight can be sufficient.

11. People: Arguably the most significant hindrance to complete fire safety on construction sites. It’s their inappropriate behaviour that will lead to fires, if you’ve done all the necessary risk assessments and put safeguards in place.

12. Risk Assessment: A thorough risk assessment of your construction site is bound to be on your list of priorities. Make sure you include all fire risks on it.

13. Smoking: Even though a considerable proportion of any construction site is likely to be outdoors, that doesn’t make smoking acceptable just anywhere. Designated smoking areas must be identified, well away from combustible materials, and everyone, visitors included, must know that they’re the only places in which smoking is allowed.

14. Unexpected fuel sources: Many of the fuel sources present on a construction site are obvious; others aren’t. Shrouding around scaffolding, like the type in our picture, could render scaffolding unsafe to use as an escape route. Protective films on high-end fittings, left in place to keep the ‘as new’ look can also burn.

Fire safety on construction sites and the law

The way to ensure fire safety on construction sites is laid down in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO) in England and Wales and the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 (FSA). The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) also come into play, placing duties on employers to prevent fires and explosions and to mitigate the consequences should they occur. There are also duties placed on individuals by the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.