Hot works: a firefighter’s perspective

  • Chris Richards tackled many fires involving hot works during a 30-year career as a firefighter
  • He is now a fire safety consultant providing training and guidance to organisations across the country
  • Chris explains how organisations can reduce fire risk when hot works are being carried out on their properties

During my career as a fire officer, I attended many fires that involved hot works – from roofing to plumbing.

The largest I can recall was early on in my career, at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, while contractors were re-felting the roof. It caused a huge amount of damage.

The biggest danger with hot works is how quickly fires can spread unnoticed. If somebody is working on a roof, using a blowlamp or a heat gun, there is always the potential for heat to transfer to an area that’s out of sight, behind a fascia board, for example, or through voids. By the time the fire’s discovered, it’s usually already caused substantial damage.

Another danger with roofing work is that, for obvious reasons, it’s usually the roof of an older building that’s being maintained. Very often, these buildings have newer buildings built behind or beside them and from a fire-fighting perspective, this can make accessing the roof to tackle the fire very difficult.

In my experience, poor preparation is a factor in the majority of fires involving hot works. Very often, what you’ll find is that the people carrying out the work haven’t properly assessed the risks, or taken the right precautions in case something goes wrong.

I’ve known occasions where somebody carrying out roofing work has brought a fire extinguisher with them, but left it in their van. That’s not going to be a great deal of use if a fire breaks out on the roof.

For organisations like schools that are more likely to bring in contractors to do hot work, one of their biggest problems is being confident enough to speak up if they’re concerned about how the work is being managed. Often there’s a view that: “These people are the experts – they must know what they’re doing in terms of health and safety”.

Probing questions

It is very important organisations take ownership of their project and their property. If you are letting somebody work on your building, you should be prepared to ask a few probing questions to satisfy yourself the work will be carried out safely. If a contractor is not able to reply with a ready answer when you ask about the procedures they have in place to keep your buildings safe, that should set alarm bells ringing.

You could start by asking if they have done this kind of work elsewhere and if they are prepared to give you testimonials from clients you can contact. You should also ask for method statements, details about their quality control systems, and whether or not they are a member of a registered body.

You could also do your own research. In this day and age, it’s very easy to go online and find reviews of companies that you might be considering for a hot works project.

The most important thing to do is check your contractor is actually doing the work they said they would do and be prepared to challenge them if they are not.

Minimising the risks associated with hot works always comes back to proper risk assessment. In fact, this is true of any kind of fire risk.

As a fire safety consultant, one of the things I find most frustrating is when I visit businesses and organisations that have spent lots of money on fire extinguishers and expensive fire safety equipment, without first identifying what their risks are and what their needs are.

Schools, for instance, will often spend lots of money on fire extinguishers and then put them in corridors and other passageways where it’s very easy for them to be damaged or tampered with. It’s no surprise that many of these fire extinguishers are not available when they’re needed. A much better idea would be to put them in classrooms, where they are accessible by the people who need them and who know how to use them.

The message that I try to reiterate time and again is that risk assessments and training are the best ways of reducing fire risk. If you have identified the risks you face, and trained your people on how to deal with them, you might also find that you are not spending as much money on expensive fire safety equipment.

For more information on managing hot works risks, please see our in-depth guide to hot works safety.

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