Construction is one of the most highly regulated industries across the many disciplines it covers. Because of this, sometimes it appears we can get lost in all the required paperwork. This is especially true when it comes to fire safety.
Fire safety is at risk of not being analysed sufficiently, not helped in part by the revisions of CDM regulations. After all the revisions, there appears to be no real change in end applications onsite and we have got into the habit of relying on and believing too heavily in CDM and double-legislative influences. What we clearly need to avoid is relying solely on computer data and simulations but to balance this with human experience and expertise. This valuable human input, alongside digital data, can guide decisions made on fire safety that draw on years of experience in real life situations.
Risk assessment and the Golden Thread
Risk assessment need not mean endless amounts of paperwork that simply prove your compliance. It is an analytical tool for experts to use as a source of information, with which to make their decisions. Thinking this way avoids the communication of information on safety being lost very early on leaving you working retrospectively to comply to regulations. I advise that you view the regulations seeing them as a minimum standard to meet, with an ambition to far exceed them.
The Golden Thread of information as stated in the Hackitt Report is of great value in changing the way we look at risk. It helps to make informed decisions throughout all phases of a scheme. What is of even greater value is looking at a design’s end result and its purpose for its occupants. Asking ourselves what and who it is being built for can greatly influence its buildability.
As an example, we could look at a school and see a whole range of occupants and users, some potentially vulnerable. If we take that as a starting point and work back to the design, we will see the practicalities of use, which will then lead to more dynamic risk assessments that are based on experience. This ensures the building is safe from the outset.
Only then, when we have a safe building, should we hand the plans to the client and explain the principles of its adaptability as well as what its limitations are. This gives the client a strong and solid foundation from which to make future decisions leading to constructing a practical, well-built and safe building. It also allows for the risk assessment to remain live throughout design, build, maintenance, adaption and addition to the building.
Testing for foreseeable risk
Foreseeability in terms of risk management is the sharing and consideration of common knowledge, industry knowledge and expert knowledge. A collective competence and mixed discipline approach with the transparent sharing of key information is key to the risk analysis process. Good risk management requires foreseeability to appreciate actual and retained risks, combined with the identification of collective control measures. Risk management in construction is a continuous process. CDM is cradle to grave legislation. Monitoring, review and good communication keep us reliably informed.
Thorough testing is very important in foreseeing risk. Misinterpretation looms large on many schemes, but it can be mitigated by using specification sheets as the starting point of any design risk assessment. Everything that goes into a building should meet, as an absolute minimum, a standard. Then assessors should ask the question: is that standard sufficient to withstand any foreseeable risk, or should we go beyond that standard to reduce future risk? This needs to be done under the umbrella of the management of health and safety regulations and the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure all stakeholders are safe from foreseeable risk.
Too often in the industry we push the parameters of design without this consideration of future risks. Designs and products might meet a standard, but when a fire occurs is that standard enough?
Positive engineering, for instance, might design a reduction in travel distances and design one exit point, but the risk in the future is when that exit point is down for maintenance or the exit is unusable because of a fire. The design might meet a standard, but the retained risk could be very high.
Back to basics
The construction industry has made strides in recent decades in terms of what is possible to design and build. What hasn’t moved with it or kept up, is fire safety. The in-depth analysis of fire safety needs to be included right at the beginning of the design stage, not just from a compliance level. On a practical level, we need to look at a back to basics model of identifying hazards and risks. It is a question of not failing on the basics, like correct fitting of fire doors and sufficient exit routes as well as understanding fire behaviour and the constant chain reaction that occurs throughout a building fire.
The fire service is a limited resource, especially with the reduction in staffing over the last few years. Even before this, the reliance on the fire service as sole responsibility for fire safety is too high a price. Buildings need to be fire safe first, beyond regulations and standards, so fire fighters are not needlessly risking their lives to save others when incidents could have been avoided long ago at the design stage.
This article is based on an interview with Paul Unsworth, Operations Manager at Safety Fire Rescue.