Fires on construction sites are on the rise, as are the number of fires being caused deliberately. What is driving these upward trends and how can contractors mitigate the risks? Lucy Alderson takes a look at the facts behind the figures.
The blaze that started in the subcontractors’ office of the Broadgate phase eight project on 23 June 1990 was supposed to be the turning point.
Flames reaching temperatures of 1,000 degrees tore through the mixed-use development and 20 fire brigade units were called to tackle the fire that consumed the building for over four hours.
In its wake, the fire left more than £25m of damage, about £2m of which was structural frame and floor damage.
A former director of one of the contractors working on the Broadgate development (who wishes to remain anonymous) remembers the first time he went back on site after the incident.
He describes how steel columns “[measuring] a foot and a half by a foot and a half”, which once supported the weight of the building, had buckled into an ‘S’ shape and were left abandoned in the yard.
Bovis, the main contractor, spent millions of pounds bringing in special jacks “the size of a house” from Sweden. These jacks lifted the building so that steel on the lower-floor, which had been “left completely mangled” by the fire, could then be cut out.
“It was shocking,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything damaged to that extent before.”
The Broadgate fire was one in a series of devastating site blazes at the turn of the decade that led to the establishment of the Fire Prevention on Construction Sites Joint Code of Practice, published in May 1992.
Unfortunately, significant fires on construction sites have continued to occur, like last year’s Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building fire (see box), the second time in four years the beloved building had been ravaged by fire, prompting a national inquiry by the Scottish government.
Now Construction News can exclusively reveal construction site fires are on the rise.
all construction fires credit home office
Source: Home Office
Exclusive data from the Home Office shows the total number of fires on construction sites has increased by 22 per cent since 2013.
Although the number of fires decreased by approximately 34 per cent between 2010-2013, they have been on an upwards trajectory ever since, never falling below levels recorded in 2011.
The highest jump in blazes was between 2016-2017, when incidents rose by 15 per cent.
The reasons behind these fires vary, but deliberately caused fires are on the rise.
Fires on the rise
Deliberately caused fires account for the majority of blazes on construction sites in each year of the data obtained.
In 2015, there was a total of 119 deliberately caused fires, accounting for roughly a third of that year’s total (376 fires). In 2017 (the latest available full-year data), this had jumped 10 percentage points, with 170 deliberately caused fires among the total number of blazes that year (408). This marked the highest number recorded in a year since 2011.
The 43 per cent (between 2015-2017) rise in deliberately caused fires is in contrast to a slow but steady decline in fires caused by construction site activities over the same comparable period.
From 2015-2017, fires caused by placing combustible articles too close to heat or fire have decreased by 29 per cent. Over the same comparable period, fires caused by faulty appliances and leads have followed the same downwards trend, dropping by 38 per cent. Furthermore, fires caused by misuse of equipment have reduced by 26 per cent since 2014.
This trend is also reflected in exclusive data from the Health and Safety Executive regarding fires on sites.
Defining ’deliberately caused’ vs arson
Incidents attended by the fire and rescue services are logged by the Home Office in an Incident Recording System, set up in April 2009. Under the Home Office’s fire statistics definition guide, deliberate fires are defined as those where the motive for the fire was ‘thought to be’ or ‘suspected to be’ deliberate.
According to the guide, deliberate fires encompass arson, but the two are not the same. For the purpose of the statistics, arson is defined as an act of attempting to destroy or damage property, and/or in doing so, to endanger life.
Only particular types of fires are reportable to the HSE such as those caused by an electrical short circuit or overload that either stops plant from operating on site for more than 24 hours or can cause a significant risk of death; and fires that prevent normal work happening or plant from operating for more than 24 hours.
In 2016, a total 25 fires were reported to the HSE, 14 (56 per cent) of which were caused by a fire or explosion caused by an electrical short circuit or overload.
The number of fires reported in 2017, however, dropped to 18. Seven of these fires (39 per cent) were caused by an electrical short circuit or overload – marking a 17 percentage point decrease since the previous year.
Construction sites ‘hardest hit’
Wilkinson Construction Consultants managing director Geoff Wilkinson claims that the number of deliberate fires could increase further.
Wilkinson Construction Consultants is a fire safety and building regulations specialist consultancy firm and Mr Wilkinson has over 30 years’ experience in this field (including being a CIOB Building Control & Standards Faculty spokesperson).
Mr Wilkinson says since 2016, a combination of issues has created a situation in which “you’ll see more of these [deliberately caused fires] happening”. This is because in times of financial strain or social unrest, there is a corresponding rise in the number of these incidents, he says.
“Obviously, where late payments kick into place in the market, this can cause distress down the line, leading to an increase in these types of incidents”
Geoff Wilkinson, Wilkinsons Construction Consultants
Mr Wilkinson believes this has created “the perfect storm” for a rise in deliberately caused fires, and adds that the industry has been “incredibly lucky” not to have suffered fire-related deaths on construction sites.
Independent fire and emergency planning consultant Stephen Mackenzie agrees there is a “correlation between the incidence of malicious and accidental fires, as the sector comes under financial pressure […] or when there is social unrest”, adding, “we’re starting to see an unsavoury climb again”.
Looking beyond construction sites, data on the total number of deliberate fires taking place across all buildings in England supports Mr Wilkinson and Mr MacKenzie’s observations. The data reflects the trend in fires on construction sites as well.
Case study: Mackintosh fire, June 2018
CREDIT Police Scotland_Glasgow School of Art fire_Mackintosh
Source: Police Scotland
Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building was damaged so significantly in the fire of June 2018, that the chair of the school said it needed to be rebuilt.
But it was not the first time this had happened.
Just four years previously, the building – known as the ‘Mac’ – caught fire in May 2014 while undergoing restoration. It led the school to appoint Kier two years later in June 2016 to lead the £25m restoration of the fire-damaged building.
In a statement submitted to the Scottish Parliament, Kier said it was “almost ready” to hand over the project before the second fire destroyed the school in the summer.
Kier exited the project later that month, after the contractor and client mutually agreed the contract could not be fulfilled.
The cause of the fire remains unknown and is currently being investigated by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Police Scotland and the Health and Safety Executive.
However, a document has been released by the Glasgow School of Art, which outlines what is currently known about the latest fire.
The interior of the Mackintosh building is largely lost, with significant damage to sections of the south façade, east and west gables. Upper areas of the north façade of the building are also damaged.
Criticism from experts has focused on two key areas of the second restoration: the lack of operational fire sprinklers; and the type of insulation used on the project.
In both fires, a fire sprinkler system had not been in operation at the time the fires took place. Member of Scottish Parliament Joan McAlpine said it was “extremely unfortunate” and that this was “a repetition of the previous mistake [made].”
Secondly, polyisocyanurate (PIR) insulation panels were used on the building – the same type of insulation that was used on Grenfell tower. PIR insulation is combustible.
Specialists including independent fire and emergency planning consultant Stephen Mackenzie have questioned why combustible materials were chosen for the building instead of non-combustible.
Commenting at the time of the fire, Mr Mackenzie said: “Any restoration works should have sought ways to reduce fire hazards and fire risk.
“Hence it is preposterous to have insulated any aspect of the building with combustible PIR.”
Demolition contractor Reigart has been appointed to dismantle dangerous parts of the building’s structure.
Alongside structural engineer David Narro Associates, Reigart has been assessing the condition of the building.
The school has said rebuilding the Mac is “critically important” and planning for the rebuild will take place in “due course”.
Since April 2014, deliberately caused fires have been on an upwards trajectory. From April 2014 to March 2015, 6,842 of these incidents took place across all dwellings (residential buildings) and other buildings across England.
This rose to 7,683 between April 2016 and March 2017. This marks a 12 per cent increase in fires over this two-year period.
However, Fire Protection Association principal consultant Howard Passey says construction sites “have always been hardest hit” by these types of incidents, which are targeted (predominantly) by teenage boys.
“They see them [construction sites] as an environment they can get to and muck about in without any consequences. Sadly, antisocial behaviour can lead to these people starting fires for the fun of it.”
Anti-social behaviour like this is just one of many reasons why fires may be started deliberately on construction sites – fraud is another.
“On occasions when a contractor has insured the premises, they may be looking (if times are tight and they don’t have the money to finish the development) to simply set light to the site and claim whatever insurance money they can off it.
“Sadly, that’s a fact of life in any industry, not just construction.”
Mr Passey does not think contractors deliberately causing fires on site is the main driver behind the rise.
Instead, he thinks that investment in fire safety on site may be less of a priority when times are tough – especially when contractors are working on such thin margins.
Mr Passey speaks from experience. The FPA offers fire safety training, but has noticed that when money is tight, people will cut back on training “quite significantly, thinking of it as an extra cost,” he says.
“You’re less likely to spend money on overnight security. You’re more likely to spend that money on people and kit which is more likely to get your work done,” Mr Passey adds.
AXA Insurance head of customer risk management Douglas Barnett agrees. He says that construction companies are “under pressure to reduce costs”, and because of this, a reduction in both training and site security may occur.
deliberate construction fires credit home office
Source: Home Office
For example, Mr Barnett says some construction companies rely solely on CCTV rather than manned security on site. However, CCTV may not be able to film all areas of the site, neither can it hear possible intruders looking to start a fire or detect smoke when a fire has broken out.
He says while companies are trying to “trim costs to make profit”, the quality and availability of fire security on site may be impacted.
“What you might have is a reduction in site security, or they [contractors] might go for the cheapest price,” he says.
One such method used to make up the margin on a project is to delay payment to subcontractors. Payment data submitted to the government in July last year revealed that the largest 20 contractors failed to pay 38 per cent of invoices in the timeframe agreed in the contract terms (on average).
Late payment tactics such as this could lead to suppliers deliberately starting fires in response, Mr Wilkinson says. “Quite often, we’ve seen subcontractors who have not been paid looking to vandalise hte main contractor’s site in retaliation.
“Obviously, where late payments kick into place in the market, this can cause distress down the line, leading to an increase in these types of incidents.”
As for insuring construction sites themselves, the risk of fire is increasingly being put under the spotlight by insurance companies says 8build director Nigel Bellamy – particularly following Grenfell.
“Insurers are much more probing now, he says. “We have to fill out a questionnaire saying do we have this type of cladding, this type of material […] when you notify insurers of a new project.”
However, Mr Bellamy says this cast-iron approach is a “positive thing” to ensure buildings and sites are safer.
AXA’s Mr Barnett agrees that more questions are being asked in order to get more information about projects, but says insurers have been aware of these risks in construction for years.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve continually said we want to make the built environment safer,” he says. And in terms of whether there has been a rise in the cost of insuring construction sites, Mr Barnett says: “For a contractor with a good track record, I would not expect any increase.”
Costs are going up
If a fire does occur on a construction site, the extent of damage it can cause has also been exacerbated by certain factors.
AXA’s Mr Barnett says the financial cost of fires has increased over the past 10-12 years, due to the rise in combustible materials used to construct buildings.
This has meant the industry – particularly housebuilders – have focused on making buildings more energy efficient, which, in many cases, meant using combustible materials, Mr Barnett says.
In an interview with CN last year, Stanmore managing director Raj Manak explained how this manifested itself with regards to insulation.
“I wouldn’t argue the fact that construction sites are far safer places to work than they used to be,” Mr Passey says. “Organisations are taking their responsibilities far more seriously now”
Howard Passey, Fire Protection Association
Mr Manak said phenolic insulation was widely used for buildings because of its thermal performance. It kept heat within buildings more efficiently compared with its mineral insulation counterpart.
As a result, phenolic insulation was generally preferred – but it is also more combustible. Now, Mr Manak says mineral insulation is preferred as it performs better in fire safety tests as the combustibility of materials has come under the spotlight following Grenfell.
Mr Manak says phenolic insulation was preferred because of pressure placed on contractors to minimise heat loss on buildings. “Government policy has been driven by having low carbon emissions,” he says. “That’s what caused the industry to use a lot more insulation which was CO2-friendly and stopped heat loss.”
As a result, Mr Barnett says fires have the capacity to cause more destruction and will “spread quicker because of the combustible materials in the structure of the building itself”. This has also increased the length of the project’s interruption period (which Mr Barnett describes as the time it takes to get back to where you were before the fire happened).
‘It could happen to anyone’
It is clear the industry is fighting an ongoing battle against fires, especially those which are deliberately caused. In fact, Mr MacKenzie says that the industry “still hasn’t fully addressed” malicious fire risks on sites and is worried by the “unsavoury climb” in these types of fires.
However, the FPA’s Mr Passey says that contractors have taken steps forward in fire safety since the late eighties and early nineties, when a number of catastrophic fires, including Broadgate Phase eight, took place.
According to FPA data, the number of fire-related insurance claims between 1989-1991 stood at £89.6m, £90.32m and £80.66m respectively. These events lead the organisation (along with the Association of British Insurers) to issue guidance on preventing fire on construction sites, known as the Joint Code of Practice.
“I wouldn’t argue the fact that construction sites are far safer places to work than they used to be,” Mr Passey says. “Organisations are taking their responsibilities far more seriously now.”
For those who have experienced first-hand the destruction a fire can cause on site, these memories never leave. Thirty years on, the former director of one of the contractors working on the Broadgate development still remembers the phone call waking him up in the middle of the night to say that phase eight was on fire.
He has never seen damage to that extent ever since and recalls the project was delayed by a year as a result.
“It was a sad day. It was terrible,” he says. “Bovis ran a clean, tidy site. It could have happened to anyone of us.”
Concerns on site safety spiked after 2009 Lakanal House fire
Bowmer & Kirkland health and safety director Mark Blundy knows only too well the devastation that can be caused when a fire takes hold.
When he was working for a previous employer 14 years ago, an arson attack took place on a timber frame building site in Cardiff Bay in 2004.
The fire was so extreme that even neighbouring houses were damaged. All the gutters and anything plastic on the buildings on the other side of the street or adjacent to the site had been burned.
Even the curtains had been charred.
Around 12 to 15 new houses on site had been destroyed. Fortunately, work had not yet begun on the two planned residential tower blocks at that point. “Things just aren’t the same after a fire,” he says. “The thought of having to do a project again after it was just horrible.”
The building site affected went up in flames years before the timber frame sector came under public scrutiny following the 2009 fire at a tower-block in Camberwell, Lakanal House in which six people lost their lives.
The following year, significant fires took hold of large timber-framed buildings under construction in Peckham and Basingstoke.
An inquiry was launched by the London Assembly in 2010 to investigate the fire safety of the buildings.
The Assembly’s report found that, once constructed, timber frame buildings posed no greater fire risk than conventionally constructed buildings. However, the committee raised concerns over the safety of sites during the construction phase.
Following the blazes, the Health and Safety Executive updated its fire-safety guidance, specifically referring to timber-framed structures.
Mr Blundy estimates the business lost “several million pounds” due to damage caused by fires on timber-frame buildings under construction (including the one at Cardiff Bay) during the course of 2004.
“If a site catches fire and that fire spreads, it poses a big risk,” he says. “With fire, you could lose everything, and everyone. The potential risk, if fire is not controlled or planned for, could be massive.”
He adds that if a contractor has had a major fire on site, it also damages the reputation of the company, which could make it harder to win future work with clients.
But larger contractors have a “big handle” on fire safety and “try really hard” to mitigate the risks, he says.
“You have to be on your guard all the time. Despite those best efforts, they can be undermined by criminal activity.”
CN investigates: The 43% rise in deliberately caused site fires