Fire can impact anyone and yet few people see it as an immediate threat, holding on to the hope it could never happen to them. This complacency is a danger in itself, but the problem has been made even more complex by the pandemic. Over the past year, fire safety has dropped off the radar as the attention of facility managers (FMs) has turned to Covid-proofing workplaces.
Businesses have always seen fire-detection systems and servicing and maintenance contracts largely as grudge purchases, and the past year has done little to change this perception. But many buildings have been left empty as employees worked remotely, meaning fire alarms have gone untested, have missed upgrades or have even failed to sound.
The 21 June roadmap has seen FMs focused on improving indoor quality and other important matters to limit any potential spread of the virus at work. But upholding fire safety is a moral consideration and a legal requirement. There is a pressing need for businesses to assess their fire risk as a return to offices is on the horizon for many.
How has your building changed?
Every business has faced unique challenges in their response to the pandemic. We’ve seen some continue operating as usual, some pivot production to make face masks and hand sanitiser, while others have shut their doors for the foreseeable future.
Those that remained open will likely have experienced considerable changes to workplace layouts, which may in turn have had adverse effects on fire safety – for example, fire doors being wedged open for ventilation, or because people don’t want to touch door handles; and new one-way systems that affect shared escape routes. What’s more, fluctuating staff occupancy levels mean there may not be enough fire wardens present should an alarm sound.
All of these changes have an impact. In the event of a fire, your staff and assets might not be as safe as you think. But there is a simple solution: fire-risk assessments. The vast majority of companies have undergone a change of occupancy during the pandemic and, as a result, must review their current fire-safety measures through a risk assessment.
This involves looking at a building’s people, processes, procedures, contents and technologies, from fire alarms to sprinkler systems, with the aim of addressing any faults. With occupancy levels and more changed for the meantime – and possibly for the long term too – it’s vital to update your risk assessments. Failing to do so could have severe reputational and financial repercussions, particularly if livelihoods are affected. Should the worst happen, it could also lead to insurers refusing any pay-outs from failing to secure the premises, leading to even more difficulties down the line.
Risk assessments under Covid
We often find that businesses lack staff with the appropriate training and skill sets in-house to conduct a sufficient fire-risk assessment. But even with the current restrictions, there’s no reason risk assessments can’t be easily carried out by qualified third-parties.
Many buildings lie vacant, meaning assessors simply need to show up in their PPE and conduct the assessment under social-distancing guidelines. Technology can also play an important role, by ensuring a building’s safety systems are in order through remote diagnostic tools. Some assessors can even carry out a vast majority of the assessment virtually, examining floorplans, exit routes, and tech stacks from the comfort of their own homes. That said, many businesses won’t have the latest IoT sensors needed to notify FMs on the condition of a building’s physical aspects, such as occupancy levels, open fire doors or signage.
The purpose of a fire-risk assessment is to provide FMs with the knowledge they need to ensure their business and assets remain safe and secure, should the worst happen. Covid has not put a stop to this – distraction has. The onus is on FMs to put fire safety back on the priority list.
Fire safety in a remote workplace
The pandemic will see a hybrid approach to work become the norm for many businesses. With a large proportion of employees continuing to work flexibly, many businesses will begin to question the need for such large office spaces. What’s more, the wider behavioural changes seen over the past year will have a knock-on effect to the purposes for which many buildings are used. All of these developments will have an impact on the way we approach fire safety, and will be accompanied by associated regulatory changes.
The blasé attitude towards the risk of fire tends to see precautions fall by the wayside, but this simply isn’t good enough when livelihoods are at stake. While it is understandable that FMs have been focused on limiting the spread of the virus in our workplaces, the risk is too great to ignore. As our relationship with buildings has changed over the past year, more needs to be done to put fire safety and the changing risk landscape back in the spotlight.
For more information, go to www.johnsoncontrols.com/en_gb