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Hot work safety: construction site fires are on the rise

Failure to comply with best practice can invalidate cover, warns Gareth Williams of IFIC Forensic

Construction site fires, including refurbishments and renovation work, have been hitting the headlines recently. Data sourced from the Home Office revealed that the total number of construction site fires has been on an upwards trajectory for the four years up to 2017, with intentionally caused fires up by 43% between 2015 and 2017. In parallel, the cost of fire and explosion claims for commercial property insurers grew to £945m in 2017, according to the Association for British Insurers.

The importance of effective fire risk management on construction sites cannot be overplayed and of particular interest to the insurance industry is the problem of hot work fires. Recent analysis of Zurich's claims data reveals that hot works are responsible for up to 15% of all fires in commercial and industrial properties. Zurich states that over a ten-year period, accidents involving hot works caused 164 major fires, resulting in total losses of £69.8m - an average of £425,000 per incident.  

Hot work refers to methods of work, primarily in construction and refurbishment, which produce heat in the form of flame, hot surfaces or sparks. Sources of heat commonly involved in hot work processes include: gas/electric welding and cutting apparatus; blowlamps/blowtorches; grinding wheels and cutting discs; brazing and soldering.

Best practice

Guidance documents produced by insurers, industry groups and government bodies relating to hot work safety detail relatively similar procedures which represent good practice in hot work. Most policy conditions are based on this guidance and failure to comply can invalidate policy cover. These documents are important as risk mitigation tools and can also form the basis of a third-party recovery or a repudiation in the event of a claim.

Fire risk assessments and the instigation of a 'permit to work scheme' are vital when hot work is being undertaken. These are the responsibility of the 'responsible person' at the premises. Permits to work result from a fire risk assessment and are used to supervise the contractor and control the risks. A hot work permit should be produced for every period of work. They last a maximum of one day, cover only the area detailed in the permit and should be signed at the start of the task and at the conclusion of the task by those completing the work and those authorising the work.

On-site safety discipline

Fires occurring where the correct level of control is applied and permit to work schemes are operating properly are rare. Monitoring of sites can also assist in mitigating the risk of hot work claims. Periodic and unannounced visits to contractors on site will provide evidence of whether guidance is being followed and help to embed the discipline required.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 sets out the law on construction site general fire safety, including means of escape. The CDM Regulations 2015 also impose duties including the requirement to prevent risk from fire. The fire risk from site activities must be regularly assessed and precautions taken to control the quantity and safe storage of combustible materials on site and action taken to eliminate reduce and control ignition sources on site.

It is within the gift of the risk and facilities management community to work to reduce the number of fires on construction sites and buildings undergoing refurbishment through careful risk planning and controls.

Gareth Williams is senior investigator at IFIC Forensics.