Building Safely: Avoiding Fire Risks Through Better Construction Practices

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Fires on construction job sites can cause significant property damage, personal injury, and even  death. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), local fire departments have responded to an estimated average of 4,440 fires in buildings under construction annually over the past several years. Most fires involved residential structures (apartments, condominiums) under construction (76%).

Leading Cause of Fires in Buildings Under Construction

According to the NFPA, cooking equipment is the leading cause of fires on construction sites, and although these fires were minor, they accounted for 19% of reported injuries. Electrical failures or malfunctions accounted for 15% of the fires and nearly half (46%) of the direct property damage.

Another 14% of the fires were caused by operating heating equipment too close to combustible materials. Fires that were intentionally set caused 8% of the fires and 45% of the direct property damage. Smoking materials accounted for 2% of the fires and 1% of direct property damage.

Items Ignited in Structures Under Construction

Nearly one-fourth of the fires involved the ignition of structural elements, including structural members or framing (10%), unclassified structural components (7%), or exterior wall coverings or finishes (6%). Waste materials were ignited in 7% of the fires and accounted for 15% of the direct property damage. The ignition of flammable or combustible liquids, gases, piping, or filters accounted for 6% of fires and 20% of injuries.

Project owners and general contractors must have construction practices, including a fire safety and inspection program, in place to minimize fire risk, keep the crew safe, and prevent property loss.

Fire Prevention Plan Is Needed

Each job site should comply with an approved fire-prevention plan as required by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). An OSHA-approved fire plan includes the following requirements:

  • Access to all firefighting equipment at all times
  • Maintenance of all firefighting equipment
  • Employee training on the use of fire-protection equipment
  • Portable fire extinguishers on all job sites
  • Posting of fire emergency reporting phone numbers
  • Proper storage and dispensing of flammable and combustible liquids
  • Use of LP gas-fired equipment and storage of LP cylinders per regulations
  • Clear instructions on how to report a fire or other emergency to minimize response time
  • An inspection program that periodically reviews the fire-prevention efforts of the project

Working on a Construction Site

It’s also crucial that the crew have clear guidelines and rules to follow while in a construction area. For example, use of temporary cooking equipment (hot plates or grills) should be prohibited on the site.

Where combustible and flammable materials are present, supervisors should ensure that equipment is used for its intended purpose. Also, flammable liquids should be stored in approved containers, and the accumulation of scrap and combustible debris should be minimized.

When choosing and using heaters, fire safety is paramount. Unauthorized temporary heaters should be prohibited at the worksite, and the areas around any heaters must be kept clear of combustible materials. Additionally, electrical and temporary heating systems should comply with manufacturer recommendations.

Only qualified electricians should install and maintain temporary electrical systems. Temporary electrical equipment should be inspected periodically for damage.

A hot-work program or permit system should be used to control cutting and welding hazards. A 30-minute (or longer) cool-down interval should be enforced after use of torches, burners, or soldering irons.

There should be a no-smoking rule in all building locations and fueling areas and near combustible or flammable storage locations.

Trash bins should be placed away from the building.

Working with Mobile Equipment

When working with mobile equipment, the construction crew should follow these safety procedures.

  • The accumulation of grass, brush, or rubbish under mobile equipment could be ignited by the engine or exhaust, so these materials need to be removed from storage places.
  • During daily equipment inspections, any leaks or seepage from hoses or fittings should be noted, and repairs should be made as soon as they show signs of wear or leaking.
  • Equipment should be refueled only after it is turned off and cooled. Hot surfaces can cause spilled fuel to catch fire.
  • Equipment needs to be kept clean. Excessive dirt buildup might result in greater temperatures and more wear on components.
  • To prevent arson and vandalism, all engine compartment lids and gasoline sources should be locked.
  • Equipment should be kept away from open fires and hot operations that could cause ignition.

Additional Construction Practices

To reduce the risk of arson, the construction site should be secured with a fence or other controls, such as lighting or after-hours security guards.

Supervisors should identify potential risks and work with the project owner to mitigate those risks. This is critical, as most buildings under construction may have only some of their sprinkler systems, smoke alarms, and fire alarms installed and operational. All general contractors should be well versed in NFPA 241 requirements and what is necessary for compliance.

If there is a fire, workers shouldn’t risk its getting out of control. They should immediately call the fire department.

In the Event of an Injury on a New York City Construction Site

If you are injured in a fire while working on a construction site in New York City, seek immediate medical attention. Also, contact a personal injury lawyer to handle your case. You are eligible for Workers’ Compensation benefits and may have other legal options if negligence is involved.

Ronemus & Vilensky, LLP’s personal injury attorneys in New York City are available to help. Call us for a free consultation.

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