Zurich calls for thermal cameras to tackle ‘hot work’ blazes

  • Half of all accidental fires on construction sites are sparked by ‘hot work’ according to Freedom of Information data obtained by Zurich
  • Zurich are urging contractors to adopt thermal imaging cameras as standard practice to cut fires caused by hot work, such as welding, grinding and torch applied roofing
  • Zurich is also pressing for a Scandinavian-style licensing system to tackle multi-million pound cost of hot work fires

Zurich is calling on contractors to adopt thermal imaging cameras to help slash the number of fires sparked by hot work.

Hot work* – such as grinding, welding and torching – is a major cause of blazes on construction and refurbishment sites, leading to millions of pounds worth of damage each year

Handheld thermal imaging devices, costing as little as £400, could help tackle the problem and is urging contractors on all non-domestic construction, refurbishment and maintenance projects involving hot work to consider adopting them as standard.

Three common causes of hot work fires

  • Ignition of combustible materials which should have been removed
  • Combustible insulation materials not being protected by non-combustible sheets
  • Floor openings or voids not being protected which have allowed hot sparks to ignite combustible materials that have been out of sight

Top tips for contractors carrying out hot works

  • Follow guidance within the Safe2Torch scheme
  • Consider less hazardous work methods
  • Complete project specific work and method statements
  • Check worker qualifications
  • Conduct a work area risk assessment
  • Ensure a named individual for fire watches during for any breaks/lunch during the day
  • Ensure a continuous fire watch for at least 60 minutes after the work has been completed, ensuring that the areas are monitored at all times, including rest breaks
  • Before signing off the hot work permit, make a final check on the work area after the hot work fire watch has been completed

Case Study

Selsey Academy

In 2016, Selsey Academy in West Sussex suffered extensive damage and much of its contents were destroyed in a blaze which cost around £20m and was sparked accidentally by a roofing contractor. More than 75 firefighters tackled the fire which resulted in upheaval for more than 450 students. The blaze highlights both the financial and social cost of hot work fires, which can destroy community assets such as schools, hospitals and historic buildings.

Kumu Kumar, Director of Risk Engineering for Zurich UK, said: “Fires caused by hot work have a devastating impact on lives, businesses and communities. The construction industry already has robust hot work controls in place but with fires continuing to break out, additional measures are urgently needed. Thermal cameras could further strengthen the industry’s existing safeguards and help to detect more hot spots before they ignite. The devices can also be used to take time-stamped photos to demonstrate fire watches have been carried out.  Although there is no single solution for preventing hot work fires, this is a relatively cheap and simple measure that could have a far-reaching impact, especially if the cameras are adopted as standard.”

Gary Walpole, Safety, Health & Environmental Officer, for the National Federation of Roofing Contractors, said: “The NFRC encourages the use of any technology that improves health and safety and within this guidance we recommend the use of thermal cameras, which are relatively cheap compared to the cost associated with fire, and the dangers posed to contractors and the general public.”

Home Office data obtained by Zurich under Freedom of Information shows that between January 2015 and March 2019, fire crews in England attended 1,587 construction fires – of which 28%** were caused by hot work, or other sources of heat.

Zurich’s own claims data shows that 15% of the total cost of all UK fires in commercial and industrial properties involve hot work. The last three years has seen the cost of damage spike to £250m.

Zurich is also calling for contractors to adopt a voluntary licensing system that would see contractors complete a training course before carrying out or supervising hot work.

A similar ‘passporting’ approach has been in place in Scandinavian countries since the 1980s, where it has significantly reduced hot work fires to less than 5% of fire losses over the last decade. Contractors complete a one-day training course giving them a licence valid for five years.

Kumu continued: “As lessons from Scandinavia show, better training and awareness around pre-work assessments and post-work fire watch periods could help to dramatically reduce the frequency of fires sparked by hot work.  A passporting scheme also encourages best practice and provides peace of mind to businesses when choosing contractors.”

*Hot work is any task that produces flame, friction, heat or sparks or other work that produces a source of ignition e.g. grinding, welding or torch-applied roofing.

**A result of either combustible articles too close to heat source, negligent use of equipment or appliance; other intentional burning; or overheating.