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Feeling the Heat

15 January 2007

Property managers and owners could be putting their organisations and their people at risk by not complying fully with the new fire safety rules. Stuart Holmes discusses good practice in light of the new fire safety legislation.

FIRE PROTECTION NEEDS TO BE HIGH ON THE AGENDA for every organisation, regardless of its size or the industry in which it operates. Whilst no organisation would dispute the importance of protecting its people and premises, a surprisingly large number are unaware of recent changes, which could jeopardise both staff and buildings alike if not implemented.

Until last year, some of the laws governing fire safety in the workplace had not been revised for over three decades. Then, in 2006, businesses saw a significant change in the rules with the introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO), which was implemented in England and Wales in October 2005 to change the way that the safety of buildings and those who work in them is managed. It was introduced to consolidate, simplify and update existing fire regulations to make the law easier to comply with and enforce.

Whilst the new rules seem to be fully understood by those organisations who actually know about them, there are a large number of organisations still unaware of the new law and its implications. Several published articles have suggested that the new order is not widely recognised: The Times (29/10/06) claimed nearly half of small businesses are unaware of the new rules and the Financial Times (02/06/06) stated that before the RRO's introduction, 35 per cent of businesses were unaware of how the legal changes would affect them. The same poll suggests that almost half were uncertain about how to ensure compliance. Even if thesepercentages have reduced since the law's implementation or are only partly accurate, many staff and their organisations are clearly at risk.

The main change to the Regulations is in relation to fire certificates, which will no longer be issued as a legal requirement to confirm that a building is adequately protected. Instead, a designated individual is responsible for the building and he/she must carry out regular fire risk assessments to examine the building's safety. The new rules shift responsibility from the fire brigade to the 'responsible person', who might be the employer, building owner, property manager or another person who has control over the premises. The Government's statutory order defines the 'responsible person' as: (a) in relation to a orkplace, the employer, if the workplace is to any extent under his control; (b) in relation to any premises not falling within paragraph (a), (i) the person who has control of the premises (as occupier or otherwise) in connection with the carrying on by him of a trade, business or other undertaking (for profit or not); or (ii) the owner, where the person in control of the premises does not have control in connection with the carrying on by that person of a trade, business or other undertaking.

That individual is obliged to make sure that an assessment is carried out and - most importantly - that any recommendations are implemented. Depending on the size of the property, the individual also needs to appoint at least one 'competent person', who is sufficiently trained, experienced and knowledgeable to implement measures that prevent and protect from fire. The responsible person must also ensure that employees are provided with adequate safety training at the time when they are first employed, and on their being exposed to new or increased risks or hazards.

Organisations are obviously at risk both physically and legally if they do not comply. They will also be at risk if they have carried out an assessment without executing the actions. Organisations operating from premises which have undergone work that affects compartment walls or floors, such as the installation of new communications or IT systems, for example, are also at risk if these areas are not restored to the correct standard. To ensure they comply, business owners need to keep documented evidence of any such work carried out on the building, which is then kept private between the organisation and the assessor.

Many organisations are also unaware that the rules cover passive fire protection, which consists of the largely unseen and easily overlooked elements that are built into the building to protect the structure and restrict the spread of fire. Typical examples of these are fire seals around service penetrations through compartment walls and floors, or intumescent paint or fire rated board solutions to structural steel beams and columns. It is essential that these concealed protective aspects - not just the visible items like sprinklers and extinguishers - are located and inspected during a risk assessment, and put right if they are not up to scratch. Organisations will be facing obvious risks if passive protection is ignored in favour of assessing and modifying only active fire protection.

To help increase understanding of the rules and to reduce such risks, the Government has produced and distributed guidance documents. However, given the terminology used in the order and in the guidance that has been published, interpretation of the regulations might vary from business to business - even between those who are carrying out riskassessments.

To help minimise these differences, risk assessors should ideally be trained by an organisation such as the Building Research Establishment (BRE), which is currently responsible for advising Government on fire safety issues including the RRO and Approved Document B. Risk assessments can be carried out either by an appropriately trained member of an organisation's existing staff, or by an external assessor. It is important that fire risk assessments are conducted periodically, and the RRO itself suggests that assessments should be reviewed regularly. All records and plans will need to be updated whenever new risks are identified. The Statutory Order also mentions the need to inform and train people once any hazards have been identified, and assessors need to ensure that their own training is up to date too. The whole assessment should therefore be re-evaluated and modified regularly, rather than just a singular exercise.

Best practice
Whilst there are many companies still unaware of the rules and their obligations, some organisations are doing a particularly good job in ensuring they comply and that their documentation is watertight. Keeping full records of documented evidence to show the work that has been completed can help businesses with clarity in accountability from the legal side as well as from an insurance perspective.

If they haven't done so already, the person who has control or the authority to take action, would do well to seek advice from one of the fire safety associations to help them understand their new obligations. For those already aware of the rules, continued assessment is the key to ensuring a safe and compliant workplace.

....Stuart Holmes is a Director of MITIE McCartney Fire Protection, specialists in the design, supply and installation of passive fire protection solutions for buildings, industrial complexes and process installations. [NB: This is a simple and partial guide to a very complex area of fire safety and the new RRO. Specific advice should be obtained on this and the Fire Risk Assessments. MITIE accepts no responsibility for any action taken as a result of this information.]

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