The best course of action to ensure fire safety is to prevent fires from starting. Fire prevention can be based on some simple ideas taken from the fire triangle:
- Control fuel sources.
- Control ignition sources.
- Control oxygen sources.
In particular, minimise these sources and keep them physically apart.
Control of Combustible and Flammable Materials
Combustible materials (such as paper, cardboard, wood and furnishings), flammable liquids (such as petrol and acetone) and flammable gases (such as butane, propane and methane) are all potential fuels and should be stored, handled, transported and used with appropriate care if the fire risk that they represent is to be controlled.
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The best option is to eliminate the combustible and flammable materials and substances entirely from the workplace. This might be done, for example, by disposing of old stocks of materials and substances that are no longer needed.
Alternatively, it may be possible to substitute one potential fuel source for another that presents less of a fire risk. For example, a petrol-powered generator might bechanged to a diesel-powered one, eliminating the need to store and handle petrol. Since petrol is a highly-flammable liquid (i.e. easily ignited at lower ambient air temperatures) but diesel is not (i.e. not easy to ignite at ambient air temperatures) there is a considerable reduction in fire risk.
If combustible and flammable materials cannot be eliminated or substituted, then the quantities of these materials present in the workplace should be minimised. This requires good stock control, housekeeping and waste management. For example, cardboard is used extensively by many manufacturing companies as a packaging material. It will be stored in bulk in a warehouse. Minimising the stocks of cardboard reduces the fire risk in the warehouse.
For the combustible and flammable materials that remain arrangements must be made for safe use and storage.
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For example, if liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is present in a workplace the following arrangements should be made:
- Bottles (cylinders) should be stored outside.
- The storage area should be fenced with a secure, lockable gate.
- Warning signs should be displayed.
- Ignition sources should be eliminated from the area.
- Bottles should be kept upright and chained together.
- The storage area should be separate from other buildings.
- Empty and full bottles should be kept separate.
- Oxygen bottles should not be stored with LPG.
- Only those bottles actually required should be removed from the storage area and should be returned after use.
Control of Ignition Sources
Poor control of potential ignition sources is a common cause of workplace fires.
- Electrical equipment should be routinely inspected and tested to ensure that it is safe. This will prevent faults developing that might cause sparks or overheating. Both portable appliances and fixed installations should be checked.
- Hot work should be controlled with a permit-to-work system unless it is being carried out in a purpose-built area, such as a welding bay in a workshop.
- Smoking should be controlled in the workplace. It is illegal to smoke in indoor workplaces in some countries. Even when it is not illegal, smoking can be controlled by company policies that ban or restrict it. In all cases, attention must be given to the safe disposal of smoking materials.
- Cooking and heating appliances should be used carefully and their use closely supervised. In particular, they should not be left unattended.
- Mechanical heat (such as friction from machinery and bearings) can be controlled by routine maintenance.
- Deliberate ignition can be controlled by making good security arrangements for the workplace. A perimeter fence, security staff at entrances, CCTV, security lighting, etc. can help.
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Systems of Work
Systems of work must be designed to minimise fire risk. The degree to which this is done and the exact procedures implemented should be decided through the risk assessment process.
An example of a safe system of work applied to fire safety is the use of a permit-to-work system to control hot work (where naked flames, or a significant ignition source will be created).
Typical precautions for control of hot work:
- Combustible and flammable materials are removed from the work area.
- Items that cannot be removed are covered with fire-retardant blankets.
- The floor is swept clean.
- Any wooden floor is damped down.
- A suitable fire extinguisher is at hand.
- A “fire-watcher” is present in the area while the work is carried out.
- The work area is visited routinely after the work has finished to check the area for smouldering.
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Good housekeeping is fundamental to fire safety and is about keeping the workplace:
- Waste-free, by removing waste on a regular basis (e.g. emptying full litter bins) so that it does not build up and increase the fire risk as a potential fuel source.
- Tidy, so that combustible and flammable materials are returned to safe storage after use (e.g. solvents returned to the solvent store).
- Well-ordered, so that fuel and ignition sources are kept separate (e.g. ensuring fan heaters are not obstructed).
Pedestrian routes should also be kept clear (e.g. with no obstructions by the fire-escape door), so that they can be used in the event of a fire evacuation.