Categories: Projects

Improving fire safety in building refurbishments


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Tony Obadipe, Regional Sales Manager at Hochiki Europe, outlines the key issues that surround fire safety in building refurbishment projects.

Several fires within refurbishment projects have made headline news in recent years, most notoriously, the Notre-Dame Cathedral disaster. It seems though these incidents are occurring all too often, and so those present on site during the construction phase, from duty holders through to installers, need to understand the factors that can increase the threat of fire and how to mitigate potential risks.  

Refurbishment work is not only common but also a necessity in some cases. Properties that have fallen into disrepair need to be made safe again, or additional developments and infrastructure are needed to house and sustain our population.

That being said, these projects can come with a high risk of fire if the correct safety measures aren’t adhered to, especially given the potential for large amounts of people to be on site at any one time – all of whom can have various levels of fire safety training.  

UK legislation laws  

In the UK, there are various fire safety laws that vary slightly depending on location, but they all allegedly say the same thing. The full list includes: Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – applicable in England and Wales; Fire (Scotland) Act 2005; Fire Safety (Scotland) Regulations 2006; The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006; and The Fire Safety Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010. 

Fire safety legislation applies to all non-domestic properties such as businesses, shops, schools, hospitals, church buildings, festival halls, and leisure centres, for example.

It can also apply to housing associations, landlords, student halls of residence, and care homes. This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives an idea of the scale of the need for everyone to understand, apply, and comply with fire safety regulations. 

Each piece of legislation refers to either a ‘duty holder’, ‘appropriate person’ or a ‘responsible person’ but they essentially mean the same thing. This is the person who will be held liable if there are any failings in the fire safety of the building, and the person who ultimately makes the decisions about the requirements for the building. This could be the employer of a business, or a landlord, or the appropriate body responsible for managing a house of multiple occupation (HMO). 

To protect those present and the site itself, it is essential that duty holders constantly update their knowledge to be aware of the various challenges to life safety when dealing with refurbishment projects. 

The refurbishment risk  

To understand this complex topic, we first must understand why fires occur so frequently in refurbishment projects and why they are such high-risk environments. Primarily, this is largely due to the amount of ‘hot work’ that is carried out in properties undergoing refurbishment.

Welding, soldering and flame cutting are all part and parcel of construction, especially in renovations, and all require the use of open flames, the application of heat or friction or processes that generate sparks.  

Although these procedures are necessary, they can greatly increase the risk of fire if the correct safety measures are not taken. In addition, highly flammable materials, such as insulation, are regularly stored on site and can be exposed throughout the development stages while the build is taking place. This increased potential for ignition only increases the risk of fire.   

Access restrictions also pose a threat, as working in confined, difficult or high traffic spaces means that accidents are more likely to occur, especially given that refurbishment projects are busy sites. This risk is increased for jobs under time constraints as workers may resort to carrying out tasks in a rushed manner.  

Therefore, it is vital that workers are both careful around each other as well as around potentially hazardous equipment and make effort to check that it is stored safety when the site is unoccupied. Ultimately, without the appropriate fire safety solutions, high-risk sites are left exposed and the chances of a serious incident increases.   

Minimising the risk 

So, how can we minimise this risk? To start, a more flexible schedule of work with capacity to change dates and push things back to accommodate for unexpected delays can play an important role in reducing the risks as a result of rushed work.

Considering appropriate pricing is also crucial, as businesses that price at lower rates often attempt to compensate this loss by increasing the workload and tightening deadlines for their employees, and so increasing the chances that mistakes will be made or accidents will happen. By considering these simply made changes, duty holders can be assured that the site is operating as safely as possible, and so reducing the opportunity for a fire incident.  

Fire safety solutions  

It goes without saying that investing in the correct life safety solutions is also critical for protecting refurbishment sites against fire hazards. Due to their temporary and ever-changing nature, as well as the lack of regulations, construction sites will commonly have minimal protection in place.

As such, manual devices like rotary bells are often used as the only defence; whereby a member of the team will use the rotary bell to warn others on site of a potential fire. However, this means that once the team members have left the site, there is no system in place to correctly signal if there is a fire.  

For this reason, installing flame detectors is a much more effective way to ensure that projects are well defended. The Hochiki DRD-E conventional flame detector is ideal for use on refurbishments as it is designed to detect flames in internal spaces.

When installed on-site, the device works similar to a point detector but detects flickering flames rather than smoke with a detection range of up to and including 25m. 

For larger refurbishment projects, when versatility comes to the forefront of specifier’s requirements, wireless point detectors like the Hochiki FIREwave detection system offers excellent protection.

The system can be placed temporarily in areas undergoing construction and then once building work is completed and permanent protection is put in place, the wireless system can be easily relocated to defend other areas of need.  

FIREwave is the most flexible and versatile fire detection solution available and is simple to install and maintain, making it suitable for even the most demanding of sites. Employing the latest radio technology, it is vital that signal tests are done prior to use to ascertain whether signal expanders are needed.

However, once the radio survey is completed and optimal locations for the radio devices have been established, FIREwave provides a simple and economic hybrid wireless fire detection system that is user friendly and perfect for protecting refurbishment projects. 

Ultimately, fires that occur during refurbishment work arise mostly due to the storage and use of high-risk tools and materials, combined with a lack of on-site protection, but installing effective and automatic fire safety solutions, such as flame or wireless point detectors, is an effective way to reduce such risks.  

However, life safety devices cannot do all the work as it is also crucial to manage projects effectively by avoiding rushed work and educating workers of the dangers and correct practices that should be followed. If appropriate measures are taken, the safety of the buildings and workers can be maximised. 

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