6 Steps to Boost Fire Protection on Your Construction Site

Posted by Kirk Biddle on February 7, 2020

On April 15, 2019, a devastating fire broke out in the Notre Dame in Paris. It destroyed the building's spire and most of its roof. Its upper walls and vaulted ceiling received extensive damage. What's unnerving is that the project included a fire protection plan.

The New York Times states the Paris Fire Brigade completed several drills focused on saving the Notre Dame's works of art and relics. The cathedral had an onsite firefighter and security agent posted daily. Additionally, fire monitors conducted an assessment three times a day.

These fire protection activities are unique to the Notre Dame. Construction sites don't typically have this kind of luxury.

The Cost of Construction Site Fires

Construction sites must contend with many safety issues. They have processes and procedures in place for personal protection equipment (PPE), following protocol in using tools and heavy machinery, and complying with rules and regulations. Another factor is fire protection.

The risk is real. Between 2011 and 2015, city fire departments responded to an annual average of 3,820 construction site fires according to the National Fire Protection Association. It has resulted in 3 civilian deaths, 49 civilian injuries, 232 firefighter injuries, and $176 million in direct property damage. This only refers to data related to new building construction.

A devastating fire can potentially do millions in damage. In 2017, the NFPA says the U.S. had at least seven large-scale construction fires. Two fires had an estimated loss of $140 million.

Reasons Construction Sites Are a High Risk for Fires

Structures under construction are at high risk for fire mainly because the structure itself does not have fire protection systems in place yet. These include sprinklers, smoke detectors, or fire alarms. All this doesn't go in until closer to completion. It is common in cooler and cold weather to employ portable heaters and heat generation systems at various phases of construction projects. Flammable items such as wood, glues, sealants, cardboard and anything in a package can burn if they get too close to ignition sources.

Of course, sometimes Mother Nature interferes as lightning can also spark fires. Structures that are a work in progress or undergoing remodeling have combustibles, waste materials, solvents, and trash piles that could result in a fire when lightning strikes.

After the day ends when everyone goes home, risks remain. Construction sites face a greater threat for trespassers and vandals. They can do a lot of property damage that could potentially lead to fire. Oftentimes, vagrants trespass on sites and start fires in colder weather to keep warm. Even if no one steps on the property, weather can still cause problems. All these increase the construction site's risk of a fire.

No construction site is completely safe from a fire, which can spread quickly. In addition to not having sprinklers and alarms in place, there is often a wind tunnel effect, which can occur in empty spaces.

Unfinished structures can be too dangerous for firefighters. They may have unprotected areas, numerous obstacles and uneven surfaces which increase the danger.

All this amplifies the need for fire protection on construction sites. Having a system in place helps safeguard the structure, the company's assets, and workers. A sound approach is to implement a multi-layer fire protection system. Sometimes a layer fails or does not apply to a certain situation. Having multiple layers bolsters fire protection.

8 Common Fire Risks on Construction Sites

The following are common causes for fires in structures undergoing construction, major renovation, or being demolished. There are also recommendations for helping to prevent fires accompanying each cause.

1. Cooking

Of the common causes of construction site fires, this is the most surprising. Not all construction structures contain a kitchen and usually, the kitchen is not in use. However, NFPA can only speculate on the reasons for the high number of cooking-related fires.

Workers often bring their own cooking appliances, as many construction sites do not have break rooms or kitchen areas. Many of these are left unattended as workers warm their food while completing other tasks. These electrical appliances may be damaged and unsafe or may create electrical loads on an already strained temporary electrical distribution system on the site. You may not want to allow hot plates, grills, and microwave ovens on the construction site. Also, make it a policy not to use the newly installed appliances while the structure is still under construction.

Workers may want a hot meal. Work with them to brainstorm creative solutions that will make them happy without sacrificing safety.

2. Hot work

As you know, hot work is a process that can be a fire hazard or a source of ignition when near flammable material. It doesn’t just occur during the time of soldering, cutting, welding, grinding, and other hot work. It can happen hours later after the hot work is done. A spark can ignite combustibles.

To minimize hot work fires, create a hot work permit system that includes having an assigned fire watch to oversee hot work processes, as well as watching the station for at least 30 minutes during the cool-down period. Many of the hot work fires result from the improper use of hot work tools. Thus, training is critical, as is checking on the work to ensure it follows the proper procedure.

3. Heating equipment

Cold weather may require the use of temporary heating from electric, kerosene, or propane heaters. Often, the heaters are not set up correctly, the instructions are not followed, or they're placed at an unsafe distance from combustible materials or flooring.

To minimize risk for heaters, make sure they have the UL logo and UL Listed mark. UL represents the Underwriters Laboratory, a global safety certification company. A product that receives UL certification means it has successfully met stringent requirements.

Even with the mark, someone should monitor the heaters while in use and ensure employees follow the manufacturer's instructions. Heaters should never be near combustibles.

Implement an inspection system for the equipment brought on site by trades to ensure the safety and compliance of the equipment on the site.

4. Flammable and combustible materials

There are going to be flammable and combustible content on the construction site. The key is to store them properly. It’s also important to not expose them to dangerous elements like a temporary heater.

Training workers on the procedures for transporting, storing, and using them will greatly reduce fire risk. At the end of a workday, these materials should be stored in a fire-retardant location.

5. Torch, burner, or soldering iron

The NFPA reports that a torch, burner, or soldering iron is responsible for 23 percent of the fires on properties undergoing a major renovation. These include welding torch, cutting torch, propane torch and blowtorch.

That's no surprise because of what they do. Training is a vital element for ensuring the proper preparation, use, and storing of these tools.

6. Electrical wiring and lighting

Many fires occur because of incorrectly installed, maintained or used electrical systems and lighting. All electrical systems and lighting — permanent and temporary — should undergo regular inspection and maintenance by a licensed electrician. It is also common for circuits to be overloaded as multiple trades try to work in an area. Tons of extension cords are deployed on site which may be nicked, cut or damaged.

Each state has its own electrician licensing rules. Check with yours to understand the requirements. Electricians must install all electrical equipment and lighting in accordance with National Electric Code standards.

7. Smoking materials

Smoking materials include cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and heat from underdetermined smoking materials. Smokers may think they're at a safe distance when smoking. This justifies the need for a well thought out smoking policy with designated smoking areas and disposal containers.

The company must communicate that policy to new workers and confirm they understand it. Post "no smoking" signs to reinforce it.

8. Intentional fires and arson

Intentional fires and arson are not interchangeable terms. NFPA's definition of intentional fires includes "deliberate misuse of heat source or fire of an incendiary nature." Both refer to deliberately started fires. Arson contains two elements: (1) the fire setter intended to start a fire and the harm caused by the fire and (2) "the fire setter was capable of forming a criminal intent."

Intentional fires are responsible for more than 250,000 fires each year between 2010 and 2014. That's only for those reported to the fire department. They've resulted in 440 civilian deaths, 1310 civilian injuries, and $1 billion in direct property damage. A secure site will have less probability of a trespasser setting an intentional fire, so it’s important to protect your site with a well laid out approach to perimeter security. This can help maximize fire protection and includes fencing, lighting, access control systems and remote video surveillance.

How A Good Security Plan Can Boost Fire Protection on Construction Sites

While remote video surveillance is not designed as a fire prevention tool, it can help aid in spotting one. As mentioned previously, vagrants often trespass on sites and start fires in colder weather to keep warm. A remote monitoring solution can help detect unwanted visitors, as well as unforeseen incidents like accidental fires.

In this video, How Can I Prevent Construction Site Fires? our security operators saw a fire start on a project site and immediately called the fire department. The ability to notify first responders in real time can help to quickly resolve a potentially damaging and costly incident.

Security does not equate to fire protection. However, an effective construction site security strategy can cover the challenges a construction site faces: fire, vandalism, crane climbers, theft, worker safety, and so on.

Here are the six security-focused steps that will enhance fire protection on a construction site.

  1. Plan: Create a construction site security plan. It identifies who is responsible for safety on the construction site. That designated person is not likely to be on the site at all hours, so the plan needs to list backups. Document procedures and guidelines for reporting a fire, evacuating, storage of materials, clean up, and fire extinguisher placement.
  2. Manage barriers: Set up physical barriers to control the vehicle and foot traffic into and out of the construction site. It helps to have one point of entry. The other thing to consider is rubbish and waste. What's the procedure for storing and removing it?
  3. Install and maintain electrical systems: A licensed or skilled electrician needs to be responsible for managing the electrical systems.
  4. Inspect: Regularly check the construction site to verify everyone follows procedures for the preparation, use, and storage of tools and materials. For instance, if using temporary heaters, they should be UL Listed, monitored, and stored properly when not in use.
  5. Check: Require workers to always check for flammable or combustible materials before starting work. Conduct regular hot work and tool fire checks every 30 minutes and up to one hour after the work is done.
  6. Implement construction security: Bolstering fire protection requires multi-layered security. This includes remote video surveillance, which keeps eyes on the construction site. The system uses a combination of video analytics and human intelligence to monitor for fire, floods, intruders, vandalism, theft, and the lack of following safety procedures. Incorporate fencing, access control system, lighting, and a cargo theft prevention process.

Employee safety is everyone's job, and so is fire protection. You can cut the risk of fire on your construction site, associated costs, and project delays by following these six steps. Many of these steps overlap with worker safety and construction site security. They create a multi-layered construction site security and fire protection program to fortify the site.

To learn more about multi-layered construction security works, check out this free construction site security guide. For a customized construction site security solution that fits your requirements and budget, contact us.

Posted in: Video Security Systems, Video Monitoring