By John Davidson, Approval Schemes Manager (Systems), National Security Inspectorate
The risks posed to small businesses through fires are far-reaching and must be taken seriously by every business owner and site manager. The consequences of failure to assess the risks, put appropriate measures in place, and ensure fire safety procedures are embedded in daily routines, are potentially disastrous: the threat to life can lead to criminal liability.
Significant potential hazards can close down companies overnight and in this respect fire is often more dangerous than a physical security breach, given the scale and speed with which damage can result, not only from the fire but also from fire-fighting operations in terms of water damage.
For instance, a small business suffering a significant fire may simply be unable to reopen the next day, should this be prevented by damaged or destroyed site infrastructure, IT systems and stock – not to mention consequential reputational damage. In today’s social media connected world any such incident represents bad news that can spread quicker and as damagingly as the fire itself.
Fire risk assessment is the starting point for all fire safety measures protecting small business. Where five or more people are employed by the business as a whole, the results of the assessment must be documented for each site the business operates.
It’s a mandatory task, required by law, and for which responsibility rests with the site’s nominated ‘Responsible Person’ or ‘Duty Holder’. These are simply legal terms which in practice mean the small business owner or manager is almost inevitably responsible for the assessment.
Carrying out a life safety fire risk assessment is key to implementing sufficient fire prevention, protection, detection and suppression measures, alongside safe evacuation procedures to be used in the event of an incident. It is best conducted when a building is occupied and operational since any changes of use or occupancy are essential considerations, not simply perhaps the more obvious integrity of physical elements such as escape routes and fire doors.
Fire risk assessments must also be periodically reviewed to ensure they remain valid to take account of recent changes of use, occupancy or to the structure of a building. Measures identified in the assessment must be implemented to both comply with legislation and retain important insurance cover.
How to discharge your duties
No one expects a small business owner/manager to be an expert on fire safety; where the ‘responsible person’ feels unable to apply available guidance themselves the fire risk assessment can be competently carried out by a service provider holding third-party approval from an accredited certification body such as NSI. This enables those responsible for the premises to discharge their legal requirements, fulfil insurance-related stipulations and gain valuable peace of mind.
Approved (certificated) providers offer the additional reassurance of compliance with all relevant British and European standards and operational codes of practice across a range of services according to their Certificate of Approval, which can include fire detection and alarm systems, portable fire extinguisher services, emergency lighting as well as life safety fire risk assessment.
Common fire risks
Typical fire safety risks include electrical faults, misuse of equipment such as portable heaters, and blocking of fire escape routes.
Fixed wiring should be inspected at least every five years as per BS 7671 while equipment such as PCs, monitor screens and printers should be periodically checked in accordance with Health and Safety Executive guidance documents INDG236 or HSG107.
Good practice fire safety ‘housekeeping’ measures, combined with effective maintenance regimes, should include the weekly testing of fire alarms alongside monthly testing of emergency lighting by the ‘user’. Fire door closing mechanisms and locks should be periodically checked and door frames examined for any structural warping or damage, which may impede doors opening or closing.
Interior and exterior checks should also be made for obstructions on evacuation routes such as stationery supplies or equipment inadvertently left on the floor. Weekly walk-abouts to ensure nothing blocks emergency fire doors are also recommended.
Covid-19 brings new fire safety risks including the storage of potentially flammable sterilising hand-gels, which are typically 70 per cent alcohol. By rights, they should be kept separate from other hazards such as electrical supplies.
The pandemic has also seen many businesses tolerating or even implementing the practice of wedging open fire doors to reduce touch points and increase airflow: this is in direct contradiction of advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council; fire doors wedged open pose a serious life threat in the event of a fire and this is also a breach of fire safety legislation, laying the small business owner at risk of prosecution by the Fire & Rescue Service.
Fire safety for small businesses starts with assessing risks to protect against injury or loss of life for staff, customers, visitors and others working on-site, eg, contractors. Additionally, the potential extent of damage from flames, smoke, water and extinguishing foam damage in tackling any fire can be catastrophic.
A combination of fire safety systems, procedures and regular observational checks lie at the heart of preventing or minimising incidents, thereby safeguarding small businesses’ ability to trade without interruption.
Adopting good fire safety procedures, equipment and signage alongside appropriate systems identified in the fire risk assessment demonstrates respect for the risk and precautions necessary for small business owners to keep staff and customers safe.