Facility Managers Play a Pivotal Role in Safely Building, Renovating and Demolishing Structures 

Facility Managers Play a Pivotal Role in Safely Building, Renovating and Demolishing Structures 

It’s important to understand the factors that most frequently contribute to construction site fires so that needed steps to minimize associated risks can be taken. 

Hardly a week goes by without a building under a construction fire on our news feeds. In recent months, we have witnessed fires in commercial buildings being renovated in Idaho, in a former Sony building in New Jersey being demolished and in multiple apartment buildings being developed around the country, including high profile incidents in Las Vegas and Texas.

Data shows that fires in buildings under construction occur all too frequently. Fires broke out in U.S. buildings under construction during the years 2013-2017, on average, every 90 minutes. These blazes caused an average of four civilian deaths, 49 injuries, and $304 million in direct property damage annually. Most occurred in residential properties, but seven percent of the fires took place in (large and small) mercantile or business properties.

Facility managers may not be directly responsible for overseeing new building development or demolition projects, but they certainly play a significant role when existing structures are being renovated. Those charged with the care and maintenance of buildings can also foster a culture of safety among workers, whether a structure is being built, rehabbed or razed.

Understand the Leading Risks

It’s important to understand the factors that most frequently contribute to construction site fires so that needed steps to minimize associated risks can be taken.

NFPA research shows that during 2016 and 2017, there was a sizable increase in renovation fires, with 2017 having the second-highest number of incidents in the last decade. Fire departments responded to an average of 2,580 fires in structures undergoing major renovations annually from 2013-2017. These fires made up only one percent of all reported structure fires but still caused an average of eight deaths, 52 injuries and $104 million in direct property each year. While large fires typically make the news, many of the major renovation fires (almost one-fifth) were confined fires.

Electrical distribution and lighting equipment were the leading cause of these fires and resulted in three in 10 injuries. The data tells us that 15 percent of fires were caused by heating equipment and accounted for 21 percent of injuries. Arcing was the leading heat source in renovation fires, followed by a spark, ember or flame from operating equipment, radiated or conducted heat from operating equipment, and unclassified heat from powered equipment. Fires that were intentionally set caused 12 percent of fires, while one in 10 fires were caused by cooking equipment. Torches, burners or soldering irons prompted one in 10 fires and more than one fifth of direct property damage while smoking materials started three percent of fires and caused eight percent of injuries.

December and January saw the most fires (although things peaked in March), and civilian injuries were highest in January and February. Renovation fires typically occur between noon and four p.m. (21 percent of total) and between four p.m. and eight p.m. (22 percent of total) but those that occurred between midnight and four a.m. caused disproportionate shares of direct property damage. A structural member or framing is typically the first item ignited in structures being altered.

Develop a Fire Safety Program

Whether a building onsite is being constructed, renovated or demolished, facility managers should understand and agree with the fire safety strategies that will be in place during construction. NFPA® 241 Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration and Demolition Operations has been in existence since 1933 to help facility managers and others mitigate fire risks during construction projects. NFPA 241 is a comprehensive document that requires a building owner to develop a fire prevention program for every construction project. The owner then designates a Fire Prevention Program Manager (FPPM) who is responsible for carrying out and enforcing the site’s fire prevention program.

Emphasizing a holistic approach to safety is always wise but especially so during any element of construction. Facility managers should be in lockstep with the designated FPPM – meeting regularly with that individual and visiting the site often to ensure that safety messages are communicated, protocols are followed, and steps are being taken to ensure that fire risk is minimized. Insurance companies recognize the importance of fire mitigation and may offer financial incentives, too, if fire risks can be adequately avoided or addressed with proper planning and oversight.

One of the best ways that facility managers can advance safety during alteration or demolition that may be outside of their direct purview is by fostering a safety culture onsite. Taking the time to talk to the FPPM and workers about housekeeping practices, hot work permit systems, fire protection impairment permit systems and construction site security can help reduce the likelihood of a construction catastrophe.

Good Housekeeping

Fires start when there is an ignition source, oxygen and fuel so it is critical to decrease fuel and ignition sources on construction sites by adopting sound housekeeping practices. The following steps won’t eliminate fire risk entirely, but they will prevent a fire from growing if one does start:

  • Ensure that workers are taking proactive steps to properly store combustible materials, empty the garbage regularly and relentlessly remove onsite debris.
  • Combustible materials, such as cardboard boxes or the construction materials themselves (wood) are prevalent on construction sites so it is important that these materials are stored at a safe distance from any potential ignition sources, such as temporary heating equipment.
  • Dumpsters and trash collection areas often contain combustible materials, too, so make sure these receptacles are emptied regularly so that potential fuel load is eliminated or at least lowered.
  • Require workers to clean up construction materials at the end of their shift or before moving on to another aspect of the job.
  • Hold workers accountable for removing food and drink materials to minimize fuel sources.

Hot Work and Fire Protection Permitting Systems

Welding, soldering, grinding, cutting and brazing are all forms of hot work that can potentially create an ignition source on a job site. By establishing a hot work permit system, facility managers will ensure that consideration has been given to the surrounding environment where the hot work is taking place. Moving combustibles, such as packaging materials, a safe distance from the hot work site, implementing safeguards to minimize the risk of sparks falling to floors below via floor openings, and determining if a fire watch are all necessary efforts that may not eliminate the risks associated with hot work on construction sites, but they will minimize them.

Similarly, establish a fire protection impairment permit system to reduce potential risks to systems. A permit system helps the FPPM manage what portions of required systems are shut down or temporarily impaired. It details protocols for ensuring that two systems on the same floor are not impaired at the same time or that two consecutive floors are not impaired at the same time. A two-permit system can also prevent hot work from being authorized in an area where a fire protection system has been impaired. By limiting areas of a building that are in a vulnerable state and managing the type of work being conducted in that area, a facility manager working in tandem with an FPPM can strengthen construction site safety.

Site Security for Safety

As previously noted, intentionally set fires are one of the leading causes of fire in buildings undergoing construction and major renovation. Secure sites with fencing or by requiring guard service in the hours when work is not conducted so that unwanted visitors are thwarted from accessing the construction site. Ensure that the project is adequately lit and that video surveillance is in place to prevent unauthorized people from entering the premises. During work hours, make sure workers are using designated access routes and not creating shortcuts so that unapproved parties are not entering areas and potentially setting fires or vandalizing.

Construction Safety Solutions

NFPA recently conducted a popular webinar on the topic of construction fire safety that included a robust discussion of related issues and opportunities. The association also created a one-hour Construction Site Fire Safety Fundamentals Online Training that offers tips on identifying everyday onsite fire hazards and ways to deal with them. A  new five-part online Fire Prevention Program Manager Online Training Series is designed to help professionals that are new to maintaining fire safety on construction sites improve their understanding of FPPM job roles and responsibilities.

“People need to understand that the requirements outlined in NFPA 241 are there for good reason,” Dave Chandler, vice president of environmental health, safety, and quality at Maryland-based Davis Construction recently told NFPA Journal. Chandler went on to say, “I think they need to learn more about the standard and that standards evolve for a reason. Investing properly in safety minimizes the risk of catastrophes and loss of life. I think NFPA 241, and related resources are underutilized. It takes a really proactive approach at minimizing the risk, and any construction, alteration or demolition has that ever-present risk of fire.” 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Valerie Ziavras is an engineer in the NFPA technical services division.

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