The number of construction-site fires is soaring – but data gaps and reporting issues stand in the way of tackling the problem
Home Office construction-fire statistics indicate a 43 per cent rise in deliberately caused fires between 2015-17; this is a significant cause for concern for the sector.
Because of this worrying trend and spate of high-profile fires, we need to urgently address how the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) requires the documenting of fires on construction sites.
From 1 October 2013, the revised Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) came into force.
RIDDOR is the law that requires employers – and other people in charge of work premises – to report to the HSE, and keep records of a range of incidents. The main categories in the context of site fires are:
- work-related accidents that cause death;
- work-related accidents that cause certain serious injury (reportable injuries), such as serious burns (including scalding), which either cover more than 10 per cent of the body or cause significant damage to the eyes, respiratory system or other vital organs; and
- certain ‘dangerous occurrences’ (incidents with the potential to cause harm).
But not all types of dangerous occurrence are required to be reported; a significant number of near-miss or small fires that don’t come under the auspices of RIDDOR are largely underreported.
Having to cross-reference various technical definitions in order to establish a RIDDOR can lead to misinterpretation. All that’s needed is a simplified set of requirements.
Effect of data voids
Fire data is necessary to establish a complete picture of the state of the issue, but data voids are having a knock-on effect on the industry’s ability to mitigate the risks of construction-site fires and to enforce sufficient fire-prevention and management measures.
“By not making inspections mandatory, we are missing a vital opportunity to prevent site fires”
Hence, we are seeing a resurgent trend in significant construction fire incidents and notable high-profile cases – Glasgow School of Art, Belfast Bank Buildings/Primark and Liverpool’s Littlewoods Pools building – are the most recent manifestations.
We simply do not have the data for all near-misses and small fires, which is preventing us from understanding their root causes.
We are unable to fully grasp the factors that influence the rate of fire-incident growth, which is preventing the industry from putting in place mitigation measures.
Code note being implemented
The subject of construction-site fires has been much debated since an alarming number of significant construction fires took place between 1970-80, and then again following a spate of significant timber-frame construction fires during the 1990s.
The culmination of these events was the formation of the Joint Code of Practice on the Protection from Fire on Construction Sites and Buildings Undergoing Renovation.
However, this code is voluntary on projects valued under £2.5m, and is merely subject to insurers’ requirements for higher-risk projects. All too often, the code and underlining audit checklists are not being implemented during periodic and robust site inspections.
By not making inspections mandatory, we are missing a vital opportunity to prevent, mitigate and manage the risk of construction-site fires.
We have been incredibly fortunate in the UK, where significant fatalities and injuries are relatively rare – if not unknown – on construction sites. But the extent of the data-gap issues are hampering the next sustained reduction in construction-site fires.
We must avoid the mistakes of the past. All construction fires should be made reportable under RIDDOR to tackle the rise in incidence.
Stephen Mackenzie is an independent fire and emergency-planning consultant, and sponsor of the newly launched @GlobalFireForum