By Val Ziavras, P.E.
Between 2013 and 2017 there was an average of 2,580 fires per year in structures under major renovation. These incidents resulted in a per year average of eight civilian deaths, 52 civilian injuries, and $104 million in direct property damage. As a facility manager, when a building is under construction, alteration, or demolition on your site, the safety of occupants and your property will likely be your top concern. NFPA 241 Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations can help you reduce the risk of death, injury, and property damage on construction sites due to fire.
NFPA 241 requires a Fire Prevention Program for every construction project. The program is an individualized plan for each project that details what safeguards will be in place to help reduce the risk of fire. A Fire Prevention Program Manager (FPPM) is also required for every construction site to ensure compliance with the Fire Prevention Program.
Regardless of the official role you play on a construction site, as a facility manager you have the responsibility to create a culture that emphasizes safety. This may involve working closely with the FPPM to ensure that safety messages are being properly conveyed to all workers on site and that steps are being taken to reduce the risk of a fire or similar emergency that could negatively impact a construction schedule, budget, or worse – the safety of those on the site. Additionally, by establishing strong fire safety practices you may benefit from financial incentives because some insurance companies recognize that the additional fire risks posed by a construction site can be adequately mitigated with proper planning and oversight.
While there are a variety of hazards on a construction site that can be mitigated with the appropriate procedures and practices outlined in NFPA 241, there are three particular areas you may want to pay attention to as a facility manager:
- Housekeeping practices
- Instituting a hot work permit system and fire protection impairment permit system
- Securing the construction site
Fires start when an ignition source, oxygen, and fuel are present. Eliminating oxygen on a construction site is unrealistic so mitigation tactics must focus on reducing the amount of fuel and ignition sources in the area. Effective housekeeping practices can help protect a construction site by reducing the amount of fuel that can contribute to fire growth and development. Some common housekeeping practices to minimize the fuel load include proper storage of combustible materials, emptying the garbage regularly, and general cleanup of debris. Combustible materials, such as cardboard boxes or the construction materials themselves (wood), are prevalent on construction sites so it is important that these materials are stored a safe distance from any potential ignition sources, such as temporary heating equipment. Dumpsters and similar trash collection areas tend to contain combustible materials which can also present similar hazards. Therefore, ensuring these dumpsters or trash collection areas are emptied regularly will help minimize the risk that the discarded materials will contribute to fire growth. Requiring workers to clean up before leaving their work areas or prior to departing for the day can also help reduce the risk of fire growth. Any wrappers, water bottles, or construction debris should be cleaned up so that minimal potential fuel sources remain. While these housekeeping practices will not eliminate the risk of fire completely, they can help minimize the likelihood of a fire growing if one does start.
Hot work, such as welding and soldering, is often an essential task on construction projects but it’s important to remember it introduces an ignition source. A hot work permit system ensures careful consideration has been given to the surrounding environment where the hot work is going to occur. Considerations include moving combustibles, such as packaging materials, a safe distance from the hot work site; implementing safeguards to minimize the risk of sparks falling to floors below via floor openings; and determining if a fire watch is necessary. Again, you may not be able to eliminate the risk associated with hot work on construction sites, but there are steps that must be taken to minimize and manage risk. Similar to a hot work permit system, a fire protection impairment permit system helps minimize the risk associated with necessary work that causes systems to be temporarily shut down or impaired. This type of permit system helps the FPPM manage what portions of required systems are shut down or temporarily impaired. Steps can be taken to ensure two systems on the same floor are not impaired at the same time, or that two consecutive floors are not impaired at the same time. The two permit systems are also used together to ensure hot work is not authorized in an area where a fire protection system has been impaired. Fire protection systems help minimize the damage a fire can cause, so limiting areas of a building that are in a vulnerable state and managing what type of work is taking place in areas is a vital component of construction site safety.
Intentionally set fires are one of the leading causes of fire in buildings under construction and major renovation. Ensuring that your site is secure either through fencing or by providing a guard service during off hours can help to reduce the risk of an unauthorized individual gaining access to the site. Additional measures such as bright lighting and video surveillance may also be used to deter unwanted access. The importance of workers using appropriate site entrances and exits, and not creating shortcuts through compromised fencing, should also be addressed. Exposed or compromised areas could provide access to unauthorized individuals and result in an intentionally set fire.
NFPA 241 identifies several common fire risks on construction sites and outlines potential safeguards and mitigation techniques. While every construction site should have a dedicated FPPM, you, as the facility manager should work in conjunction with him or her to ensure that safety is at the top of everyone’s mind while working at your facility. To help inform prospective FPPMs and those responsible for working with them to ensure fire safety, NFPA has created a new Fire Prevention Program Manager Online Training Series. The five-part online learning series is designed to help professionals that are new to maintaining fire safety on construction sites improve their understanding of FPPM job roles and responsibilities. It also provides construction companies, building owners, and supervisors with reassurance that designated personnel have an awareness of their role as an FPPM and the hazards that present on a construction site.
NFPA is also hosting an Addressing Fire Safety Challenges During Construction Webinar on April 15. The webinar will feature a panel of industry experts discussing key considerations for construction site fire safety, the importance of proper training, and the FPPM role. There will be plenty of opportunity for Q&A.
To learn more about NFPA resources related to the topic of construction fires, visit nfpa.org/constructionfires.
Ziavras is an engineer in the NFPA technical services division where she contributes to the development of technical content for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Previously, she served as the staff liaison for the Fire Code Technical Committee and several Safety to Life and Building Code Technical Committees. Prior to joining NFPA, Ziavras worked at a consulting engineering firm designing sprinkler systems. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and Master of Science degree in Fire Protection Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She is also a registered professional engineer in the discipline of fire protection in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
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