Construction caution with Medshop AU

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Steven John Cumper, Founder, Medshop AU, looks at handling flammable materials in construction and how to mitigate fire risks and ensure worker safety

The construction sector is one of the world’s largest industries, accounting for about $10 trillion of spending on goods and services globally every year.

In the United States, the sector is equally important, having been valued at $1.8 trillion in 2022.

Aside from topping statistics of leading industries, the sector is also infamous for the level of danger construction workers can become exposed to.

In 2021 alone, the number of construction sector deaths caused by slips, trips, and falls rose by more than 5%.

Apart from risks associated with heights, construction workers may also face risks caused by handline flammable materials on job sites.

In this article, we investigate how contractors can mitigate fire risks and increase safety on their sites.

How to identify common flammable materials

Mitigating risks starts with understanding the hazards workers on a particular job site may become exposed to and how those potentially hazardous materials can affect them.

Basically, flammable materials are substances that ignite easily and burn fast.

Take a look around most construction sites, and you are likely to find gases, liquids, and solid materials that fall into this category.

Understanding flammable materials

To qualify as a flammable material, gases like propane, butane, or acetylene need to have a lower explosive limit of less than 13% in air or a flammable range of at least 12% in air.

Butane’s flammable range in air is 20%, for example.

Liquids, such as solvents, paints, and paint thinners need to have a flashpoint below 100°F to be considered flammable.

Solids in this category can include simple things such as rags soaked in a flammable liquid or leftovers from spills that have not been cleaned correctly.

In addition, some metals can burn when they come in contact with water or air.

Even seemingly innocent items like matches can contribute to a fire.

Identifying flammable materials on-site

How can workers identify potentially flammable materials? If those materials are kept in their original containers, the containers are usually marked according to standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The aim is to allow workers to identify potentially flammable substances easily, even without specific training.

Still, marking containers does not replace training.

Construction contractors and site supervisors need to ensure that new crew members are trained swiftly and understand which potentially hazardous substances they may be handling.

Common safety hazards

Fires are the most common safety hazard created by flammable materials on construction sites.

However, it takes more than these materials alone for a fire to start.

An easy way to understand how fires start is to think of a triangle.

The fire triangle consists of:

  • Fuel, such as liquid, gaseous, or solid flammable materials
  • A source of ignition, which could be anything that radiates heat or creates a spark, and
  • Oxygen

Sources of ignition include torches but also tasks including grinding operations.

When it comes to equipment that radiates heat, something as simple as a kettle can be enough.

Any of the flammable materials we listed earlier can become fuel for the fire to consume.

Other trash such as paper or wood, will also feed potential fires.

Oxygen can be found in the air we breathe, which consists of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and other trace gases.

21% may not sound like a  very high number, but it is certainly enough to keep a fire going, devastate a construction site, and cause fatalities.

Strategies for mitigating fire risks

Construction contractors can mitigate fires on construction sites effectively by:

  • Identifying and labelling flammable materials
  • Storing potential fuels away from ignition sources
  • Training crews on fire safety measures
  • Providing adequate safety equipment

Let’s start by looking at training: not every new crew member arrives at a site with sufficient knowledge and awareness of flammable materials and fire safety.

Labelling hazardous materials contributes toward site safety.

However, without adequate training to create awareness of what the content of those labels means, it may not be enough to protect workers.

Additional training not only helps with the identification of flammable materials, but it allows crews to spot mistakes made in storing these materials.

Spotted early, these issues can be resolved before an incident occurs.

Keeping fuel sources away from sources of ignition and storing them in adequate structures, away from direct sunlight, also helps mitigate fire risks.

Crews also need to understand how their behaviours affect fire safety.

Smoking may be banned on many larger construction sites.

If contractors allow it, they should limit it to designated smoking areas away from flammable materials or ignition sources.

Essential tools and resources

Aside from adequate training to increase awareness, construction crews also need to know where to find additional information about flammable materials and fire hazards.

Moreover, they need to be trained in dealing with accidents and incidents.

OSHA provides specific fire protection information on its website.

The documents not only list flammable materials but also explain different classes of fire and flammable materials relevant to construction scenarios.

Training to deal with accidents and incidents starts with basic first aid training that can help save lives before emergency medical personnel arrive at a site.

First aid training would not be complete without providing crews with the gear and resources they need to help one of their colleagues adequately.

If a crew handles flammable materials, their first aid supplies and training should include specific information and equipment to deal with burns.

Because burn victims often experience heart dysfunction, most job sites require Automated external defibrillators (AEDs).

They allow layperson first responders with minimal training to help someone whose heart is beating irregularly by shocking the heart back into a normal rhythm.


Flammable materials increase the risks faced by construction crews. At the same time, they are essential to the industry.

While it is not possible to remove the risks related to handling those materials entirely, they can be mitigated effectively by increasing the knowledge and training of crews involved in handling them, labelling materials correctly, and providing adequate storage to protect everyone on-site.

About the author

Steven John Cumper, B.App.Sc. (Osteo.), M.Ost., is a businessman with a strong background in biomedical science and osteopathic medicine. He founded Medshop while studying at RMIT University in Australia, expanding its reach to markets in Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Malaysia. In September 2021, the Bunzl Group acquired a majority stake in Medshop, but Cumper remains involved as the Managing Director (Medshop Group). His journey from Zimbabwe to the UK and Australia reflects his dedication to academia and entrepreneurship, combining diverse knowledge and experience.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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