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We need to raise the alarm

Lucy Alderson

“Things just aren’t the same after a fire,” Bowmer & Kirkland health and safety director Mark Blundy says. 

He speaks from experience. While working for a previous employer over a decade ago, a major fire broke out on a building site in Cardiff Bay.

Fortunately, no one was hurt. However, 12 to 15 new houses on site had been completely destroyed by the fire.

Mr Blundy estimates the company lost “several million pounds” due to damage caused by fires on timber-frame buildings under construction that year, including the one at Cardiff Bay.

He says the consequences of a major fire can be huge for a contractor.

“With a fire, you could lose everything, and everyone,” he says. “The potential risk, if fire is not controlled or planned for, could be massive.”

The cause of the Cardiff Bay fire was deliberate – and fires like this are on the rise.

In exclusive data obtained from the Home Office, CN can reveal deliberately caused fires on construction sites spiked by nearly 43 per cent between 2015 and 2017. In fact, 2017 marked the highest number of intentionally caused fires since 2011.

Data for 2018 is not yet available.

What’s driving this worrying trend? The answer is multifaceted.

Fire Protection Association principal consultant Howard Passey says that a decline in investment into fire safety initiatives on construction sites could be one reason.

He says the FPA offers fire safety training and has noticed that when money is tight, companies will pull back on training “quite significantly” in order to focus on investing in people and kit.

Fire safety and building regulations expert Geoff Wilkinson says a disgruntled supply chain may be another reason for the increase. He alleges that he has seen subcontractors who have not been paid “looking to vandalise the main contractor’s site in retaliation”.

Mr Wilkinson predicts that these types of fires will continue to rise because since 2016, a “perfect storm” of issues has created a situation where “you’ll see more of these [incidents] happening”.

This is because in times of financial strain or social unrest, there is a corresponding rise in the number of deliberately caused incidents, he says.

It’s a worrying thought. If we continue to see the spike in deliberately caused fires increasing, the impact on businesses could be, as Mr Blundy describes, massive.

Obviously, there are financial implications. Indeed, AXA Insurance head of customer risk management Douglas Barnett warns that the financial costs of fires has been on the up over the past decade.

But most importantly, the consequences of a fire breaking out on a busy construction site could be fatal. Mr Wilkinson says, to his knowledge, that the industry has been “incredibly lucky” not to have suffered fire-related deaths on construction sites.

It is critical to tackle this growing site danger.

After all, as Mr Blundy says, things are never the same on site after a fire.

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