Understanding and mitigating the effects of the ‘Fire Triangle’
This image of a factory fire was taken by The Herald in 2012. It give you an idea of the threat to any business of a fire on the premises. Productivity losses can be crippling, and the human cost immeasurable. People don’t even need to be in the path of the flames. They can be injured from incorrect egress, or secondary causes such as smoke inhalation or structural damage.
Commercial Building owners and occupiers have a responsibility to their staff and shareholders to provide a safe and secure workplace. So it’s important that you companies and managers know the inherent risks within your business.
Your first option should be to consult with a fire professional, and have them point out the dangers inherent in your building. But whether or not you’ve already done that, here’s some basics you really ought to know to protect your investment.
If you’re fortunate enough to be doing a new build, then fire protection and prevention is no doubt a key concern of the architect in all aspects of the build. Modern rules and building codes specify minimum standards. But if you’re in an existing building, what steps can you take to mitigate the risks?
First, you need to understand what causes fires. Known as the “Fire Triangle”, there are three elements needed to cause a fire. These are:
1. Ignition Sources
Heat is a typical ignition source, as is anything which generates sparks or flames. But it’s not always so obvious. It can be as simple as a faulty wiring harness, or even water or rodent damage to exposed wiring (rats can eat the insulation off wires).
Fuel sources can vary greatly, from flammable or toxic supplies, to innocuous materials such as such as stationery, carpets or wall coatings. If your building is wooden, then the whole structure is a fuel source.
While this is pretty essential to our staff, there are ways to throttle the availability of oxygen in the event of a fire. Compartments and fire-proof doors is the obvious way, but modern buildings typically are open plan, and so it’s vital that the characteristics of the building in the event of a fire are well known and dangers minimized.
And second, as a business owner or manager, there are several steps you can take to eliminate or mitigate fire risks.
1. Be aware of risk fire poses to your business and your staff, and take appropriate precautions
It’s not uncommon to find all three elements of the fire triangle in any business. The secret is to keep them separated. In other words, it’s the mixture of all three which poses a real threat, so do what you can to keep the three elements separated.
Are you storing or working in the vicinity of flammable materials? This might be as simple as a petrol generator in the plant room, or a garaged vehicle fleet. If you have more than 20 litres of flammable liquid or 2.5 kg of flammable gas in your workplace, you’re required by law to have appropriate fire extinguishers.(The type you’re allowed is dictated by the likely type of fire you will encounter).
2. Make sure your building is safe from ignition sources
If you are concerned about fire safety, or work in an area prone to fires, you should regularly inspect exposed wiring and other ignition sources.
a. Electricals and mechanical equipment should be properly maintained, and faults rectified asap.
b. Pay particular attention to equipment that generates or radiates heat, such as kettles or electric motors, and
c. Where sparks can’t be avoided (such as smoking areas, grinders, or colliding metals) be meticulous in your inspections and remove other aspects of the Fire Triangle.
3. Be aware of combustible materials employed in the construction and particularly maintenance of your building.
Many buildings, particularly older ones, are constructed with flammable materials. Even modern buildings often find it unavoidable to use flammable materials in certain situations. And many employers don’t recognize the danger these can cause and how this is heightened during any (even routine) maintenance.
Whether it’s the cause of a fire, or merely a propagator of the flames, roofs pose a complex trade off between safety and health. For instance building owners around the world recognize the huge gains to their building from insulating and waterproofing with bitumen membranes, but they can be potentially lethal, especially during application or in a fire (no matter what the source). Two key aspects you should look out for are:
a. Shoddy materials: Older membranes are actually a source of fuel for fires, and can propagate the spread of flames and drip hot tar on people caught below. Modern membranes like IKO Prevent have a built-in graphite layer which acts as a fire retardant, and significantly reduces the risk and the dangers of a roof fire.
b. Shoddy installers. Most existing membranes require heat to melt the bitumen, so that it sticks to the roof structure and creates a waterproof seal. Almost all installers use an open flame to apply this, which in itself is a major cause of roofing fires. You’re much better to use a ‘Cold Applied membrane’, and again IKO Prevent is specifically designed to be cold applied yet retain the integrity of a conventional bitumen roof.
So while usually you can’t eliminate the risk of fire, there are certainly ways you can reduce the risk. Remember, the first step should be to talk to a fire professional. Regardless of whether you’ve done that, here’s some other sources you might find interesting:
- Explanation of “The Fire Triangle” by Gloster Fire Department (UK)
- OSHA (US) guide to fire protection and prevention
- FEMA (US) guide to replacing roof materials
For the last 100+ years Neuchatel has been protecting tens of thousands of surfaces from deterioration caused by heavy machinery and the elements. Over time we’ve refined our products and our service to be more durable, environmentally friendly and affordable – especially for large scale projects.