Chapter 5: Reducing the Likelihood of Fire
115. An effective strategy should be in place to reduce the likelihood of a fire starting. At its simplest, this means separating flammable and combustible materials from ignition sources and ensuring that equipment and installations are maintained.
Housekeeping and Storage
116. Control of combustible materials should be achieved by attention to good housekeeping principles. By carefully considering the type of material, the quantities kept and the storage arrangements, risks can be significantly reduced. Appropriate practices are:
- Not storing combustible materials in plant rooms, boiler rooms, attics, service voids and shafts, electrical main or sub-switch rooms.
- Storage in dedicated storage areas, storerooms or cupboards.
- Regular checks and cleaning to remove and prevent the accumulation of waste in spaces such as plant rooms, service voids and shafts, and basements.
- Control and frequent disposal of packaging, waste and other combustible rubbish.
- Loose storage, bins and waste external to the building, sited well away from the building so that any fire cannot affect external walls or overhanging eaves.
- External bins and storage containers secured to prevent movement.
- Where fire-raising is a potential problem, bin and container lids fitted with locks.
- Regular building checks to ensure that storage arrangements are being complied with.
Storage and Use of Dangerous Substances
117. Certain substances and materials are by their nature, flammable, oxidising or potentially explosive. These substances are controlled by legislation, in particular the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmosphere Regulations 2002. More information can be found on the legislative.gov.uk website: Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002. The principles of safe handling and storage are:
- Avoid the use of flammable materials and liquids wherever possible or substitute flammable substances and materials with those that are preferably non-flammable or with those that are less flammable.
- Reduce the quantity of dangerous substances to the smallest reasonable amount necessary for use.
- Correctly store dangerous substances, for example in a fire-resisting metal enclosure. All flammable liquids and gases should ideally be locked away, and segregated if necessary, to reduce the chance of them being involved in a fire or used in deliberate ignition.
- Ensure good ventilation is provided by way of high and low level vents to allow any flammable vapours to be dispersed.
- Ensure that all staff are aware of the fire risk of dangerous substances present and the precautions necessary.
118. The presence of flammable liquids increases the chance of a fire starting and its rate of development. For example, a leak from a container of flammable liquid may produce flammable vapours which can travel some distance away from the source of the leak, increasing the likelihood of reaching a source of ignition. Vapours could reach rooms containing heating plant or electrical equipment. The risk can be reduced by ensuring the storage and use of flammable liquids is carefully managed and materials contaminated with flammable liquids are properly disposed of. Further guidance is available on the HSE website at www.hse.gov.uk/fireandexplosion/.
119. Under normal circumstances, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) is flammable and is heavier than air. Where LPG cylinders or cartridges are used, these should be stored and used in the open air outside the building. Particular care should be taken to minimise the possibility of involvement in a fire.
120. Some care homes use bulk LPG fixed installations for cooking or heating, comprising an external tank and supply piping. In these installations there is a need to ensure that there are no fires in the vicinity of the LPG tank, and to consider the maintenance of the installation and piping.
121. Guidance on the safe storage and use of LPG is available from the supplier, and the trade association for the LPG industry, Liquid Gas UK (website found here: www.liquidgasuk.org), and on the gas safety pages of the HSE website at www.hse.gov.uk.
122. Flammable propellants are often used in aerosol cans. Aerosols are liable to explode if involved in a fire, intensifying and spreading the fire and possibly damaging doors so that they fail to restrict the spread of fire and smoke. These potential consequences, and the quantities involved, should be taken into account and appropriate use, storage and disposal arrangements put into place. Manufacturers’ instructions should be followed. They should not be stored in escape routes, boiler houses or other areas containing fixed sources of ignition, such as cupboards containing electrical distribution boards. They should not be kept in damp areas (such as under sinks) where the container might corrode. Aerosol cans can overheat and rupture in direct sunlight therefore avoid placing aerosol cans containing LPG/flammable liquid propellant on window ledges.
123. Emollient creams containing paraffin based products are used to treat dry skin conditions. They are highly flammable and actions to reduce their fire risk should be taken. Smokers, in particular, should be advised of the risk. Creams should be stored securely when not in use. Emollients applied in large quantities or to large areas of the body increase the fire risk. Impregnated dressings, clothing, towels and bedding should be kept away from naked flames and other sources of ignition. Fabrics should be washed and changed regularly to prevent build-up. The residue may not always be completely removed during laundering. Items may need multiple washes at high temperature using a high quality detergent or, ultimately, should be replaced.
Safe Use of Equipment
124. Lack of preventive maintenance increases the likelihood of fire starting in equipment. Common causes of fire in equipment are:
- Inadequate cleaning of equipment such as tumble driers.
- Allowing extraction equipment, such as in kitchens, to build up excessive grease deposits.
- Disabling or interfering with automatic or manual safety features and cut-outs.
125. A competent person should regularly maintain (and where necessary clean) machinery, equipment and plant, including cooking, heating and office equipment. Appropriate signs and instructions on the safe use of equipment may be necessary.
126. Electrical installations and electrical equipment can be a significant cause of fire. Possible causes include:
- Equipment faults.
- Overheating cables and equipment due to overloading or loose connections.
- Incorrect installation, use or maintenance of the installation or equipment.
- Damaged or inadequate insulation on cables or wiring.
- Combustible materials placed close to electrical equipment which may give off heat.
- Arcing or sparking.
- Modifications to an installation by unskilled/incompetent persons.
127. Some precautions are:
- Only correctly wired and fused extension leads and plugs should be used.
- Electric blankets should be maintained and serviced in accordance with the manufacturers’ guidance.
- Electrical equipment should only be used for its designed purpose.
- Sockets and extension leads should not be overloaded.
- Maintenance of installations and equipment should be done only by persons competent to do so.
128. To reduce the potential for a fire occurring, there should be an effective programme of planned preventive maintenance for electrical installations and equipment.
129. In the case of fixed electrical installations, this is likely to involve periodic visual inspection at a frequency based on risk, possibly by a member of staff trained in what to look for, along with testing at intervals no greater than 5 yearly, normally by an approved electrician. If there is any doubt about the safety of electrical installations, a competent electrician should be consulted.
130. Where portable electrical equipment is used, including items brought into the premises by staff or residents, it should be maintained - this is likely to include portable appliance testing at suitable intervals.
131. Guidance on electrical safety, including FAQs on maintaining portable appliances, is available on the HSE website at http://www.hse.gov.uk/electricity.
132. There should be a procedure for reporting faults. Faulty equipment should be taken out of use when it is identified or suspected of being defective, and thereafter repaired by a competent person or replaced.
133. The most common use of oxygen in care homes will probably be therapeutic clinical use on an ongoing basis. Oxygen poses a special hazard. High concentrations of oxygen can cause materials to burn extremely rapidly and some materials which are not normally considered combustible, can burn in an enriched oxygen atmosphere. Oxygen enrichment can occur in clothing, upholstery or bedding. Oxygen can cause an explosion when in contact with grease or oil.
134. Smoking should not be allowed where oxygen is used or stored, this includes residents using oxygen masks. Electrical equipment such as electric razors, hairdryers, electric blankets or electric heaters should not be used in close proximity to oxygen equipment or in an oxygen-enriched environment. There should be suitable instruction and warning signs highlighting the dangers. Staff should be aware of the inherent dangers of using oxygen and be trained in safe handling and use.
135. When not in use, oxygen cylinders should ideally be stored in a secure outdoor location. For clinical and operational reasons it may not be practical to store cylinders externally. Cylinders stored indoors for clinical use, should be stored upright in a suitable rack or trolley, secured in such a way that they cannot easily fall or be easily pulled or pushed over. Empty and full cylinders should be segregated and indicated with appropriate empty or full cylinder necklace tags. Cylinders should not be located in corridors, stairways or near exit doors or beside any fires, naked lights, oils or grease. It should be ensured that equipment is not leaking and that the area where they are located, is adequately ventilated.
136. Careless use of cigarettes and other smoking materials is a common cause of fire. Staff need to be vigilant. A cigarette may smoulder for some time, especially when surrounded by combustible material. A fire can start several hours after smoking materials have been emptied into waste bags and left for future disposal.
137. There should be a clearly defined smoking policy for residents, staff and visitors, and robust management control. The prohibition on smoking does not apply to residents in adult care homes where care providers have designated rooms for residents to smoke in, although they are not obliged to designate any rooms. Designated rooms, clearly marked as a room in which smoking is permitted, should be completely enclosed spaces with ventilation systems that do not ventilate into any other part of the building required to be smoke-free. The number of combustibles in dedicated smoking rooms should be limited.
138. Where smoking by residents is permitted in designated rooms, sufficient quantities of ashtrays should be provided. Ashtrays should be emptied regularly each day into a metal container which is then taken outside. Ashtrays should not be emptied into plastic waste bags. Inspections of smoking areas should be made at regular intervals with staff being vigilant for any sign of scorch marks or burning. Staff should ensure that discarded smokers’ materials are removed and that they are fully extinguished. Evidence of scorch marks or burning on furniture or carpets indicates that some residents may need additional supervision.
139. Risk control and supervision needs to be considered for those residents that have a history or may be susceptible, be it through careless use of smoking materials, a medical condition that increases the risk when smoking, or those who may use lighters or matches in an attempt to start a fire.
Managing Building Works And Alterations
140. Fires often occur when buildings are undergoing refurbishment or alteration. Before any building work or decoration, the fire safety risk assessment should be reviewed and additional risks considered and evaluated. The impact of the work should be considered in terms of the introduction of new ignition sources and combustibles and the effect on the existing fire safety measures.
141. To ensure that fire safety measures are not compromised and that adequate controls are in place, it is important to ensure co-operation between the building contractor and the care home management. It may be appropriate to specify site-specific fire precautions in contract conditions.
142. Examples of issues that may arise with building work that need to be considered and controlled are:
- The potential for fires to be caused by hot work such as soldering, welding, flame-cutting, roof repair, paint stripping; and by temporary electrical equipment.
- Increased quantities of combustible materials and accumulated waste.
- Obstruction of internal and external escape routes.
- Loss of normal storage facilities.
- Fire safety equipment, such as automatic fire detectors, out of use due to alteration work.
- Fire-resisting partitions being breached or fire-resisting doors being wedged open.
143. Hot work should only be undertaken when suitable precautions and fire safety equipment have been provided. This may be the use of an industrial quality fire blanket to mask areas adjacent to the work being carried on, an appropriate fire extinguisher provided immediately to hand, or where the activity presents a high fire risk, an observer standing-by with responsibility to identify any fire propagation from sparks or other source. Hot work should cease at least one hour before contractors leave site for the day. Areas where hot work is undertaken should be frequently inspected during the first 30 minutes after the work is completed, and then 30 minutes later to ensure that no materials are smouldering.
144. Modern buildings of timber frame construction contain combustible material in the structure. Care needs to be taken with tools or heat sources where any construction work or alteration involves drilling or cutting openings in the outer cladding or the inner plasterboard skin.
145. The content of skips, waste containers or combustible material may be subject to deliberate ignition. Storage, preferably in lockfast non-combustible containers, should be away from the building so that any fire cannot affect external walls or overhanging eaves.
146. Only the minimum materials necessary for the work in hand should be allowed within the building or close to the exterior of the building.
Keeping Escape Routes Clear
147. There needs to be control over the provision of combustible materials in escape routes. If a fire was to occur in an escape route or spread to material in the escape route, this could be a particularly difficult and threatening situation, preventing occupants from escaping and preventing staff accessing to assist.
148. Stairways that form part of escape routes should be kept clear of combustible items and items that could be a source of ignition. Items kept in corridors should be controlled, particularly bedroom corridors, consistent with the need for the normal functioning of the premises and the needs of residents.
149. Examples of some items which are normally unacceptable in stair and corridor escape routes are:
- Gas cylinders, gas pipes, meters and similar fittings.
- Cooking appliances.
- Upholstered furniture.
- Coat racks.
- Vending machines.
- Electrical equipment such as photocopiers and battery chargers.
- Storage of combustibles (such as refuse and laundry outwith normal controlled cleaning periods).
150. The possibility of deliberate fire-raising should be considered. This may be particularly relevant in areas with a history of vandalism or fire-setting. Appropriate precautions should be taken. The premises should be secure against unauthorised access to non-residents and secure against unauthorised access to plant areas or other unoccupied spaces. Waste, particularly stored external to the building, should be kept in lockfast bins or stores. Security measures should not compromise the means of escape and the ability to evacuate.
151. Where a resident has a known predisposition to starting fires, increased supervisory measures may need to be implemented.
Furniture And Textiles
152. A number of fires in care homes are the result of the ignition of textiles or furnishings. The choice of furniture and textiles can influence the ease of ignition and growth of a fire. Fabrics and textiles should be either inherently flame retardant or durably treated and appropriately labelled. Laundering should be undertaken in accordance with the manufacturers’ specific instructions.
153. The filling material used in upholstered furniture may be easily ignitable and consequently, furniture should be maintained in good condition so that there are no tears which expose the filling material. Upholstered furniture (and composites of cover material and infill) should meet the standards in the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, and in addition, pass the flammability standard in BS 5852 with ignition source 5. Loose furniture covers should be capable of meeting BS 5852 ignition source 1.
Dynamic Air Mattresses
154. Dynamic air mattresses (also known as ‘Airflow’ or ‘pressure relieving air mattresses’) can help prevent pressure sores and ulcers but if punctured by an ignition source, escaping air can cause a fire to increase in intensity and to spread quickly. The inflation pump may also continue to reinflate the mattress, making the fire worse. The risk is increased further if the person uses oil based emollients or medical oxygen. Potential sources of ignition should be kept well away, such as smoker’s materials, candles, hairdryers/straighteners, electric blankets and consideration given to using fire-resistant bedding.
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