Fires are a significant hazard on construction sites.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were an annual average of 830 fires in residential buildings under construction from 2007 through 2011, excluding one- and two-family homes. These fires caused an average of $56 million in direct property damage per year. Over those same years, there were an estimated 400 fires annually in large residential buildings undergoing major renovation, causing an average of $17 million in direct property loss per year.
But proper planning and monitoring can improve your chances of completing a project without incident. The American Wood Council has posted a video, Construction Fire Safety Practices, that can help.
Before beginning a construction project:
- Review the construction site, contemplating adjacent exposures that may affect the project
- Look at how accessible the site would be for firefighters and their equipment
- Develop a site-specific fire prevention plan, educating employees about what to do in case of fire
- Establish a Hot Work Permit program that requires operations involving any sparks, open flames or heat-producing activities to follow safety protocols before, during and after work has been completed.
Throughout construction, conduct thorough on-site inspections. Trained representatives of your project management team should inspect the site daily and retain all documentation. Inspections should include:
- Active construction areas
- Material storage areas, including special consideration for flammable items
- Construction trailers and temporary structures
- Site perimeter and adjacent property exposures
- Mobile construction equipment storage areas
- Per the NFPA, the leading equipment causes of construction fires are:
- cooking equipment (40 percent)
- heating equipment (29 percent)
- torch, burner, or soldering iron (6 percent)
- electrical and lighting equipment (6 percent)
- shop tools and industrial equipment (5 percent)
- All construction trailers, storage trailers and offices should be made of noncombustible material and be at least 50 feet away from the construction site and at least 30 feet from each other.
- Fire department site access areas must be clearly identified, maintained and unobstructed at all times. Access to fire hydrants or qualified water supplies for firefighting must be readily available whether adjacent to or within the boundaries of the project site.
- Store all combustible materials safely and consider ordering them as needed to minimize the amount on hand. Spontaneous combustion of paint solvents, oily rags and similar materials discarded with trash can lead to a major loss.
- Establish and strictly enforce a no smoking policy throughout the duration of the project.
- Provide fire extinguishers, rated not less than 2A, for each 3,000 square feet of the protected building area. The travel distance from any point of the protected area to the nearest fire extinguisher must not exceed 100 feet per Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. When there are multiple levels, OSHA requires an extinguisher be placed near the staircase on every level.
- Enforce good housekeeping in areas around permanent electrical installations, preventing accumulation of debris or combustible materials near live electricity. Temporary electrical equipment should have ground fault circuit interrupters.
- Install and activate an automatic sprinkler system as soon as possible after the building shell has been completed.
- Collect all demolition and construction material as soon as possible. Removal of discarded materials should be done by a qualified disposal service on a regular basis – daily, if necessary –to eliminate accumulation of refuse. Position dumpsters away from buildings. Use metal containers with close-fitting lids for rags. Avoid burning any refuse, but if unavoidable, burn at least 150 feet from buildings. Some jurisdictions prohibit open burning; remember to follow any local burning bans and observe any red-flag warnings in wildfire and forest fire areas.
- Provide safe temporary heaters. Secure them on a solid base away from any woodwork and keep the floor free of all combustible material. Before leaving, be sure the heater is turned off.
Fire exposures are high and constantly changing throughout the course of construction. Key personnel on site must always know it’s their responsibility to follow fire control procedures. Contractors have a responsibility to make sure that a fire control plan is specific, adequate and – most importantly – executed.
For related information, see:
10 tips to improve construction site security
This loss control information is advisory only. The author assumes no responsibility for management or control of loss control activities. Not all exposures are identified in this article.