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How fire safety changes during the winter months

25th January 2022

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Fire safety is already an underserved aspect of general health and safety, but this is never more true than during the winter. A number of fire hazards unique to the winter months are rarely factored into fire risk assessments, or even general risk assessments, and pose an underappreciated risk to life and property. 

While being comfortable at work is itself an aspect of health & safety, this needs to be balanced with a greater appreciation of fire safety. The winter months need to be a period of increased vigilance in this respect, and a point at which businesses and individuals should weigh up changes to both policies and fire safety infrastructure. 


Underappreciated risks

Of all the areas of health and safety in the workplace, fire safety is perhaps the most curious. Despite having arguably more direct legislation than any other aspect of workplace safety, fire safety is also one of the most frequently ignored safety issues. Fire drills and policies are rare in many smaller businesses, extinguishers are often not present or allowed to expire, and escape routes are rarely thought about, either in terms of the likely path of a fire or the clutter that can make them unusable. 

In the winter, many of these common issues are exacerbated by the need for heating. Poor design often means that radiators aren’t enough to heat large spaces adequately. As a result, devices such as space heaters and electric blankets are often used on a casual basis to provide extra warmth, without considering how these might impact on a business’ fire safety policies. These devices could easily be faulty, be left running by accident, cause an electrical overload, or ignite nearby materials

The shorter days also mean lights being left on for longer, which can themselves pose a fire risk, and may even mean different hours for your business, or a change in work schedules. All of these factors are liable to cascade with existing issues in many businesses, such as poorly organised or maintained electronics, general clutter, blocked fire doors and a lack of visitor registration. Even if a company’s fire safety policy is being followed to the letter, these added factors are often not given adequate consideration.

This is not to mention the myriad other risks posed during the winter time. As well as the fire risk from heating and other electronic devices, the cold and snow can create safety hazards on and around your site. An icy path could prevent people from escaping safely in the event of a fire or other emergency. Yet it’s more likely to be seen as an impediment to getting into work, and prioritised over improvements to safety within the building.


Improving fire safety culture

Improving fire safety during the winter months doesn’t mean making people uncomfortable. As mentioned, the cold weather can be a safety risk in itself. Cold weather can cause and exacerbate illnesses, impede circulation, and reduce concentration. While there isn’t a minimum workplace temperature set in law, cold employees work less effectively, and employers have a responsibility to keep employees safe.

While there may be a question about why (and whether) devices such as space heaters are necessary, the bigger question is how to use them safely. This comes down to two things: knowledge and culture. Employees need the knowledge to use devices safely, much of which is common sense, but none of which should be taken for granted. Heaters for instance should have sufficient clearance from any objects nearby, and should be kept away from flammable materials. 

This kind of knowledge can only take you so far, however. While posters and PSAs are helpful, they will have little tangible impact if they aren’t taken seriously, or reinforced by the actions of others. As with most other forms of safety, fire safety relies on maintaining a positive culture. This starts at the top, and has to permeate down through the organisation, reinforced by leaders at every level. This means acting appropriately, but also ensuring that others do the same, both through instruction and training. 


Other ways to improve fire safety

Prevention is better than a cure, but the winter months are also a good point at which to review your fire safety provisions. Changing the culture around fire safety in your organisation won’t count for too much if the policies you’re applying are lacking. Fire drills should be conducted frequently, particularly within large or complex buildings, and safety policies should clearly outline both actions to avoid fires and the actions to take in the event of a fire. 

On top of this, you should also look at the fire protection within your workplace. Fire protection takes two forms: active and passive. Active fire protection includes devices such as fire extinguishers, fire alarms, sprinklers and detectors, the need for which will depend on the nature of your site. Passive fire protection includes anything that does not need to be triggered, and may include fire resistant barriers, partitions, walls, doors and ceilings. 

Should the worst occur, passive and active fire protection can act to protect both life and property. Fire barriers and walls can help to slow the spread of fire between areas, securing routes of egress and reducing property damage. Fire resistant cable and service enclosures can protect life critical services, keeping lights on and systems running during a fire, while vents and ductwork can extract smoke without feeding a fire. Fire protection is also often used to protect archive rooms and vaults, preserving valuable files, documents or computer systems until the fire can be put out. 

Our reliance on systems such as fire alarms and the relative rarity of fires has made fire safety an underappreciated issue. As the winter months introduce new fire safety risk factors, the responsibility is on employers and employees to mitigate these risks by changing their behaviour, and taking fire safety more seriously.

With a combination of training, open dialogue, reappraising fire safety policies, and improvements to passive and active fire protection methods, workplaces can ensure that they remain fire safe during this period. The benefit may feel intangible, but the chances of a fire will be reduced – and with it the potential damage to life and property.

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