Preventing Construction Fires

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Stevens Publishing Corp.

Summary Statement

Discusses the typical causes of fires, such as poor housekeeping and careless smoking and provides suggestions on how to prevent them.
Feb 2001

Causes usually are simple: careless smoking, no housekeeping, sloppy maintenance on electrical tools, portable heating, lack of adequate fire watch, or faulty wiring.

 Watch your rough and rowdy construction workers closely as they arrive on the job site the next time. How many of them carelessly flipped away a lit cigarette butt before entering?

As they pass by, is trash blowing around that has been thrown onto the ground? Have you ever watched a poorly kept, multistory building construction project and the array of flammable junk and debris being thrown off the sides?

Have you checked the use of handheld tools and cords lately, or the GFCI on site? What about portable heating? Stretching plastic tarps to shield workers from windy conditions and adding a portable heater in excessively close range does happen when workers are trying to keep warm...

Construction Site Housekeeping Checklist
Flammables and Tools Checklist
Electrical Items Checklist

Are employees welding or performing other hot work in a hurry? Are they leaving flammable chemicals in open containers or not storing and labeling them properly?

Do your nighttime security folks know how to use a fire extinguisher and how to call in a fire? Does someone indeed walk the site after hours every day?

For that matter, are the several hundred other things you and I could list being done properly to ensure a good fire protection program on the site?

Housekeeping is one of those areas that will quickly backslide if your rules are not enforced ruthlessly and consistently.

Fire is a very real threat on any construction site, and usually ignition is from a simple cause such as careless smoking, no housekeeping, sloppy maintenance on electrical tools, portable heating, lack of adequate fire watch or faulty wiring.

Careless or disgruntled workers, or that ever-present clever employee taking shortcuts, can create fire hazards in the course of a work shift by rigging, sabotaging, or simple laziness. Can you guarantee fire safety on any construction job site? No. However, you can do those things that are necessary and required reasonably to ensure a safe job site. Success takes constant vigilance, effort, and a reasonably good working relationship with the site. Construction safety is not for the armchair quarterback--you have to be in the center of the game and on the field most of the time!

Similarities and Differences

So often we in the safety field categorize safety, carving our own little niche into the business of saving lives and safeguarding property. Surely we all appreciate the massively overlapping nature of safety between a general industry process and construction?

A well-maintained job site with safety as a top priority is much the same wherever it is located. There are notable differences, however, that are much more extensive than just the codes that apply. They include the very transient nature of the construction process and the hazards that change as the project constantly moves forward.

Management Issues Checklist
Evacuation and Escape Checklist

Are reasonably up-to-date documents on your training efforts maintained at some location remote from the site?

Fire safety can be managed as part of a comprehensive safety program utilizing many of the same basic principles. These include the following:

  • The person responsible for safety. Is there a designated safety person on site who is known to everyone? Does this person have an active role on the site, and does he or she assist with problem-solving as needed?
  • A comprehensive safety program. We all know what this means: a working safety program, not a set of rules no one has ever seen that you keep just to impress those pesky inspectors and insurance reps! They will know anyway if safety is alive and thriving on your site, within minutes of entering.
  • Housekeeping. Do you have established rules for housekeeping and have you gotten the message across to your employees and vendors on what is allowed and what is not permitted? Housekeeping is one of those areas that will quickly backslide if your rules are not enforced ruthlessly and consistently.
  • Equipment. Is the emergency equipment on site that is needed to get the job done? Are the right items ready and available to the workers? Is the equipment kept in good working order and use enforced?
  • Staff training. Is there a consistent and constant training effort at your site? Are reasonably up-to-date documents on your training efforts maintained at some location remote from the site? Critical topics such as new employee orientation, fire extinguisher usage, reporting an on-the-job injury, evacuation routes, reporting a fire on site, hot work procedures for fire protection, adequate Hazard Communication for flammables on site, as well as other chemicals, lockout/tagout, and a host of other critically needed training falls into this category, depending on the work being done at the site.
  • First aid. You must ensure that all employees know the details of where first aid supplies are kept. You must also maintain on the site first aid-trained personnel where needed and have posted emergency contact information in the event it is needed. The job site's street address is very handy to have posted, in the event someone uses a cell phone or the accident occurs in a remote location. The "take the dirt path beside the second clump of trees past the old church" sort of directions are rather tough to follow for EMS personnel!
  • The rules. Site rules for safety as well as preventing fire are useless unless they are followed. Employers and construction managers should monitor their work sites and take appropriate action when breaches are found.
  • The weather. The worse the weather conditions, the more creative those clever workers can become! Employees get in a hurry if a big storm is coming in, and then they take shortcuts--lots of "I'll do it later" things suddenly are done that could contribute to or worsen a fire on the site.

A Continuous Concern

As often stated, construction fire safety tops the list of potential hazards on a job site. Whether you're responsible for a small construction site or a massive one, construction fire potential is a continuous concern. Constant effort must be maintained in order to protect employees, visitors such as inspectors or vendors delivering supplies, as well as the site itself.

With insurance premiums and liability costs escalating, redoubling your efforts by keeping a watchful eye on the fire potential at your site will be grandly rewarded. The risks may seem intangible or remote, but they offer rewards by reducing potential losses.

Construction safety is tough, often thankless work. It takes a persistent safety soul with a thick hide and a relentless personality to be successful. Accompanying this article is a series of handy checklists to assist you in your efforts.


Construction Site Housekeeping

  • Are the premises kept clear of all kinds of refuse and process waste?
  • Is there an identified perimeter to the property that is clearly identified, and is public traffic/entrance to the site prohibited (where possible)?
  • Are waste and excess debris or scrap swept up and removed from the premises at least daily?
  • Are areas in and around the building site kept free from accumulated packing materials, such as empty wooden crates, straw, plastic products, paper, etc.?
  • Are appropriate metal bins (or Dumpsters with lids for some items) provided for readily combustible waste materials, such as oily rags?
  • Are storage places accessible to firefighters?
  • Are there clear spaces around stacks of stored materials and adequate gangways between them?
  • If a sprinkler system is installed, are stacks of material arranged so they do not impede the effective operation of the sprinklers?


Flammables and Tools

  • Are paint, lacquer, flammable solvents, thinners, and other flammables stored appropriately for the site location? Is this area clearly labeled as to its purpose?
  • Are flammable liquids carried about in safety containers and not in open tins, buckets, etc.? Are the employees trained in use and safety precautions?
  • Are flammable liquids handled only at a safe distance from possible sources of ignition?
  • Are suitable non-sparking tools provided for use in places where flammable liquids are kept or used?
  • Is machinery regularly inspected, with the emphasis on lubrication and cleanliness?
  • Are drip trays provided?
  • Are special items such as LPG cylinders and other flammable materials properly stored?
  • Have steps been taken to prevent floors and walls becoming soaked with oil?
  • Are heating appliances at a safe distance from woodworking and combustible building items?
  • Are portable heaters securely guarded and placed or fixed so that they cannot be knocked over?


Electrical Items

  • Are defects in electrical equipment remedied at once?
  • Are lockout/tagout good practices utilized where needed on site?
  • Is temporary extension wiring kept to a minimum, and is care taken not to overload existing circuits?
  • Is the use of portable lamps kept to a minimum, and are the ones being used provided with appropriate guards? Is the height appropriate?
  • Are the main switches of all electrical circuits in the off position when the equipment is not in use?
  • Is fire equipment maintained in good working order at all times and is it accessible for immediate use?


Management Issues

  • Does the person on firewatch have access to a telephone? If so, does he or she know how to use it? Is there a language barrier?
  • Is the telephone number of the fire department or emergency response group prominently displayed?
  • Is a routine inspection of the premises made when work has finished, and again at least one hour after work has stopped for the day, to check for slow burning or smoldering fires? Are portable heating units verified as turned off?
  • Is there someone on the staff at management level responsible for fire prevention measures to resolve differences in opinion and make management decisions?
  • Is every employee aware of the means of escape from the premises?
  • Does every employee know how to use the fire equipment with appropriate and documented training?
  • Are all stored materials clear of the floor in an approved location?
  • Where drains are provided, are they kept free of obstructions?
  • If smoking is allowed at specific areas on site, are appropriate receptacles for cigarette butts provided? Are these checked throughout the day and emptied as needed, and again when work is completed? Is an appropriate distance from any combustible materials maintained?
  • Is there a system of supervision on site for specialty activities, such as welding operations or other hot work that may be carried out on the premises?
  • Do those doing hot work have appropriate fire extinguishers with them and know how to use them appropriately for the hazard?
  • Is fire equipment located where it is really needed? Is it easily accessible and in good working condition?
  • Are the right classes of extinguishers provided for the types of fire that could occur?


Evacuation and Escape

  • Is a well-defined fire alarm used on site and known by all employees?
  • Can the alarm be heard by everyone working on the site above the normal background noise?
  • Are allowances and accommodations made for disabled workers and those who work alone or in isolated situations?
  • Where possible, are at least two escape routes in different directions provided for the employees to use?
  • Can enclosed escape routes such as stairwells resist fire and smoke ingress from the surrounding site?
  • Where fire doors are provided, are they kept closed and not blocked open?
  • Are escape routes and emergency exits clearly designated?
  • Are the escape routes and exits kept clear at all times?
  • Are emergency exits never locked when people are on the site?
  • Has emergency lighting been installed if necessary to enable escape, and is it adequate? Has it been tested?
  • Is there is a way to account for all personnel on the job site at all times?
  • Has an assembly point been identified where everyone can gather and be accounted for? Do the employees know where that location is?

These checklists are for informational purposes only. No checklist is a substitute for a comprehensive safety program.

Linda F. Johnson, CSP, MS, CEHS, is the Technical Editor of Occupational Health & Safety.