Hot works fires – three multi-million pound losses

  • Fires involving hot works often spread rapidly and cause significant property damage
  • Our claims experience shows many hot works fires could have caused much less damage – or been avoided altogether – if the hot work permit system had been adhered to
  • We discuss three major fires involving hot works, and identify lessons organisations can learn from them

Fires involving hot works may be rare, but when they occur, the damage to property is often substantial. Sparks can quickly spread to neighbouring buildings and cause fires that are hard to bring under control.

Investigations into the causes of hot work fires often find they could have been avoided if proper safety procedures had been observed.

Here, Stewart Powell and Graham Herridge, from Zurich’s Major Loss Team, discuss three significant claims we have handled recently, all relating to major fires during roofing work.

Case study 1

This fire occurred during the school summer holidays. Plastic tarpaulin caught light as a gas torch was being used, and the fire spread rapidly, destroying much of the school. Subsequent investigations identified a number of failings that meant the risk of a fire occurring had not been adequately addressed.

Stewart says: “The biggest issue in this incident was that there was no hot work permit in place to ensure the works were being managed safely.

“In addition to that, materials were being stored on the roof where the works were taking place and there was no fire extinguisher on site.

“The absence of a fire extinguisher may have put the contractor in breach of their Hot Works Warranty, as their insurer refused to indemnify them following the loss.”

Case study 2

Hot work permits specify that for torch-applied roofing, a fire watch must remain in place for at least an hour after work has finished for the day, to ensure all sparks and embers in the site area have been extinguished.

Stewart says: “In this incident, we believe the contractor left the site before the one-hour fire watch period had elapsed, and it was during this time that a fire took hold. Had the contractor stayed on site, the damage could have been minimised considerably.

“Although there was a hot work permit in place on this occasion, it was the contractor’s permit, and nobody from the school had oversight of it.

“It may also have been possible for cold works to have been used instead, but no explanation was given as to why this option was not chosen.”

Case study 3

This fire occurred at a particularly sensitive time – as students were returning to school to collect their GCSE results.

Combustible materials caught light as maintenance work was taking place on the roof of a two-storey building that housed a library and IT facilities. Although the fire was spotted quickly, it spread so rapidly that the whole of the building was destroyed.

Graham says: “Although there was a hot work permit in place, managed by the contractor, it didn’t achieve a great deal and appeared to be more of a box-ticking exercise.

“One of the problems identified was that it was a generic permit for a larger programme of works taking place at the school; the permit wasn’t specifically created to manage the risks associated with hot works.

“In addition, there was no proper oversight of the permit. It was kept in the contractor’s cabin and the only person who saw it was the individual who had issued it.”

Learning lessons from hot works fires

Losses from fires involving hot works can sometimes run into millions of pounds. Indeed, in one recent claim Zurich handled, the loss was estimated at nearly £20m. Careful management of the associated risks is therefore essential.

Cunningham Lindsey, one of Zurich’s partner loss adjusters, has conducted a review into the causes of hot works fires, which found evidence of:

  • Inadequate or cursory work area inspections
  • A failure to properly brief those carrying out hot work on the nature of the works
  • Poor project oversight, including the way that subcontractors are managed

Following its review, Cunningham Lindsey has recommended that individuals responsible for authorising hot works ensure that:

  1. Less hazardous work methods have been considered.
  2. Project specific work and method statements have been compiled.
  3. Worker qualifications have been checked.
  4. A work area risk assessment has been conducted.
  5. Those carrying out the work have signed an authorisation to work as per the agreed method.
  6. Periodic inspections are carried out.
  7. A final check on the works area is made at the end of each working day.

Our in-depth guide to hot works safety includes more detail on how to manage hot works risks, and also explains the insurance considerations you should be aware of.

Find out more and access helpful guides and insight with our Fire Risk Resource.