Construction sites can cause some of the most dangerous and expensive fires. The worksite is fraught with risks, and if a fire breaks out, it can spread rapidly and create situations that make it difficult for firefighters to gain control of the fire or rescue trapped workers.
The introduction of NFPA 241 as a standard may help reduce fire losses — for both life and property. Let’s break down the basics of construction fire safety by taking a look at the risks and how to approach them, and how implementing NFPA 241 could slow the rate of fire losses on a large scale.
What to Know about Construction Fire Safety
Fires at construction sites create a major risk for property damage, personal injury, and even death. What’s particularly susceptible to fires? Structures built with wood framing. Wood-framed buildings, especially lightweight wood-framed structures, are consumed quickly and can turn into a dangerous fire trap in no time at all.
Although steel-frame buildings are just as vulnerable to fire risk, wood-framed buildings are more likely to collapse when aflame. Unfinished walls and stairwells can create a wind tunnel effect that exacerbates flames, leaving few escape routes for workers and even fewer approaches for firefighters to access the structure without fear of being trapped.
Construction site fires often happen before sprinkler systems and alarms have been installed, so fires can spread with little warning. Since there are reserves of combustible materials all around, a stray spark or smoldering cigarette can lead to disaster.
To prevent fire losses, project managers must be diligent when supervising the site and implement safety procedures to minimize the risk of severe, life-threatening fires. NFPA 241 can be used to address and mitigate fire risks at construction sites. Let’s explore some of the common construction fire safety risks and some suggestions for how to address them.
Addressing Construction Fire Safety Risks
The construction environment is ripe with the four elements needed to start a fire: oxygen, heat, fuel, and a chemical reaction.
From the open spaces that provide ventilation for fanning flames to the equipment that produces large amounts of heat and sparks, the risk for a fire during construction can never be completely eliminated, but there are strategies that managers and workers can use to limit the risk of damage to property or themselves.
Work Involving Heat or Sparks
Sparks from welding, sawing, grinding, and other processes can lead to workplace fires, especially when that work is completed near combustible materials. When hot work like this is being completed, assign a fire watch with employees trained in fire prevention and extinguishing techniques. It’s good to remember that your fire watch should extend the length of the project, and through a cool-down period as well.
Use of Temporary Heaters
Heaters should always be monitored when in use. Any temporary heaters brought onto the site must be UL certified and approved by project management.
Foul Play or Arson
Unapproved persons or activity at the construction site could lead to damage and fires, and make the construction company or property owner liable for damage and injury. Sites should be well secured, using a layered approach to prevent vandalism or entry by unauthorized persons.
Improperly extinguished cigarettes or ash pose a significant threat to construction fire safety. The construction site should always remain a non-smoking area. Designated smoking areas should be provided that are a safe distance from combustible materials.
Combustible and flammable materials can significantly accelerate a fire as fuel. Fuels and other flammable liquids and gases must be stored away from fire risk areas and monitored when in use.
Cooking equipment such as microwave ovens, toasters, hot plates, and other appliances are a common cause of workplace fires. On the construction site, these are unacceptable and unsafe. Designate a break area but encourage employees to bring food items that do not require cooking equipment.
Faulty wiring is a common construction fire safety hazard. Electrical and lighting systems must be installed to comply with NEC standards, but also regularly inspected and maintained by an electrician.
Construction tools, particularly those that use rechargeable batteries, can overheat and cause fires. All batteries must be charged away from the construction area and in a safe location.
Uninstalled Fire Protection
Without fire protection systems like fire alarms and sprinkler systems installed, the entire construction site is at increased risk of fire. Make sure that all workers have access to a fire extinguisher and know how to use one, know where the closest fire hydrants are located and can spot the signs of a fire starting to notify others and the fire department of danger as soon as possible.
How NFPA 241 Prioritizes Construction Fire Safety
The National Fire Protection Association developed a standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, known as NFPA 241, that can be used to streamline operations with construction fire safety in mind.
The standard outlines several strategies for mitigating fire risk on construction sites, as well as best practices for demolition and renovation sites. Here are a few key points that stand out:
- Building owners must assign a person to fill a Fire Prevention Program Manager role. This person is responsible for implementing fire safety measures throughout the site and ensuring they are carried out.
- Temporary fire protection systems are outlined and recommended by the NFPA to protect workers and property until fire protection is installed.
- Local authorities with jurisdiction can require additional security around the site when no workers are present for projects of a certain scale.
- NFPA 241 also puts specific regulations on the use of cooking and heating equipment.
NFPA 241 was created to protect workers, property, and firefighters from the extreme fire danger that improperly managed construction sites pose. By implementing this standard, construction site safety can be improved for every party involved, which secures a great outcome for the project.
If you’re looking for ways to improve your construction fire safety, Vanguard can help. Our technicians can walk you through the ins and outs of NFPA 241 and help you achieve a safer, more productive work environment for your construction projects.