No office is immune to fire and advance planning can save lives

 

Almost six workplace fires break out every day in the Republic. The death of two children and injury to five other people in a domestic fire in Cabra last Sunday and the fire at the peat-fired ESB generating station at Rhode, Co Offaly, last Saturday serve as timely reminders that fire can maim or claim people's lives within minutes and can wreck or damage a business.

The most recent statistics on fire safety from the Department of the Environment show a disturbingly high number of workplace fires. Excluding false alarms, workplace fires attended by fire brigades in 1995 included: 472 agricultural buildings; 373 outdoor storage facilities; 226 factories; 201 industrial storage buildings; 201 shops or supermarkets; 104 schools; 82 pubs; 73 offices; 72 restaurants; 68 hotels, guesthouses or boarding houses; 59 hospitals; 40 petrol stations or garages; 31 dance halls, discos, cinemas or theatres; 17 ships or aircraft; 3 chemical plants; and 75 other institutions.

Mr Tony McCarthy, chairman of the Chief Fire Officers' Association, says that workplace fires usually start in simple ways like in waste paper bins (which should be of metal construction), by dumping things like shredded paper near a heater or by failing to appreciate the fire hazard posed by heat emanating from that seemingly benign desk lamp.

Intelligent management is about analysing risks, planning to reduce exposure to risk and putting the plan into practice. Staff should be trained not only in how to evacuate the building but they should be made aware of the causes of workplace fires and trained to appreciate the risks posed by carelessness.

To prevent fires at work, basic housekeeping is essential. Rubbish should be removed regularly and not allowed to pile up. Escape routes should be kept clear and signs and notices remain visible.

Lights and lamps shouldn't exceed the maximum recommended wattage. Scorch marks from lights on ceilings and walls should be investigated. Plugs with 13 amp fuses must not be fitted to appliances that should only have a three amp fuse. The 13 amp fuse won't register a problem and a fire can result.

Electrical appliances which don't need to remain plugged in should be unplugged at the end of the working day. Overloaded adaptors and faulty plugs or sockets are fires waiting to happen.

Photocopiers, computers and other electric office equipment must not be tampered with by unqualified personnel. Adequate ventilation is required to cool electrical equipment. Papers and other combustible materials shouldn't be placed on top of equipment like VDUs or the staff microwave, nor near most kinds of heater.

The careless disposal of cigarette butts and matches in workplace smoking-permitted zones is clearly a major fire hazard. Notices and adequate ashtrays should be provided and ashtrays emptied only into a metal container.

Electricity is a major cause of workplace fires. Emergency services attended more than one fire every day in the Republic caused by electrical equipment (372 incidents) in 1995. Another 530 brigade-attended fires were due to electrical wiring installations, while 656 more ignited by electric cooking and heating.

A spokesperson for the ESB warns that "wiring on the customer side of the meter is the responsibility of the customer". He advises always to engage contractors who are members of the Electrical Contractors Safety and Standards Association or the Register of Electrical Contractors of Ireland (RECI). If worries persist they should contact their local ESB office. He says employers should always "make sure they get a certificate".

Employers are in effect obliged by the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Regulations 1993 to:

ensure that anybody in the workplace can be evacuated quickly and safely in the event of a fire;

designate and train named employees to implement evacuation procedures;

provide enough appropriate equipment to evacuate everybody;

inform all employees about the fire risks they face, the safeguards already in place and the actions expected of them in the event of a fire;

take immediate action and give appropriate instructions in the event of a fire to enable employees to stop work and evacuate the premises;

ensure that any employees who leave the workplace in the belief that their safety is in serious and imminent danger are not placed at "any disadvantage in relation to his employment unless there was negligence on his part";

the National Irish Safety Organisation (telephone 01 662 0399) is running a five-day fire safety management certificate course in association with Dublin Fire Brigade at the O'Brien Institute Fire Training Centre in Marino, Dublin, from February 23rd-27th. It provides skills training in the management of fire risk and fire management in the workplace.