Managing fire safety in a hybrid workplace
Thanks to Health & Safety Review for this article by Margaret Kirby
How do you manage fire evacuations when most or all of your staff are remote working? Who takes on the role of the fire warden and how can you train staff who are not physically present? HSR explores some of these issues with practitioners involved in fire safety.
Managing fire safety in a hybrid workplace has become a topic which many health and safety professionals have raised with HSR as challenging since the pandemic. The increase in remote and hybrid work practices is set to continue, with a recent survey showing 52% of workers combining working remotely with being on site.
“A hot potato for many employers is the issue of fire safety in the remote worker’s home and where the responsibility for this lies ”
The question therefore remains as how to ensure you are compliant with fire safety requirements, when key personnel may be absent during fire drills, evacuations or training exercises and buildings are partially occupied or not occupied at all.
Traditional fire safety management has involved the preparation of an emergency plan, which outlines how the workplace will be evacuated in the event of a fire. Many plans have relied on the role of the ‘fire warden’ or ‘fire marshal’ to help in the execution of this plan.
The fire warden’s duties typically involve ensuring people evacuate safely from the building, or area they are assigned to, and checking who is present or absent at the assembly point. They also play a role in identifying fire hazards in the workplace, ensuring means of escape are kept clear and ensuring fire extinguishing equipment is checked and maintained, amongst other duties.
But the challenge for many workplaces now is that persons who have been trained as fire wardens, or their back-up person, may be working remotely off-site when the fire alarm activates. Other persons holding key roles in the evacuation plan may also be absent, including evacuation managers, incident control officers and their deputies. That extra pair of eyes trained to identify and report fire hazards may no longer be routinely present, and issues may get missed, leading to an increased fire risk.
Speaking with Dublin city civil defence officer James McConnell on this issue, he makes the point that if no one is present on certain floors in a building, no one will spot what may be a potential hazard, such as obstructed emergency exit routes, an accumulation of flammable packaging material or fire detectors not working. “This is something every business needs to consider in their fire risk assessment of their buildings, and they also need to review what fire training is needed for their hybrid employees.”
Continuing on this theme, fire prevention officer with the Mater Misericordiae University hospital, Douglas Iler, notes that due to the 24/7 nature of the work of an acute hospital setting, which has over 4,000 staff working shifts across multiple buildings, the role of the fire wardens has had to evolve. Even since before the pandemic, a decision was made that relying on specified people to be present in the event of a fire alarm was not practical. “I asked staff what was the role of the fire warden?”, explains Douglas. The answer was unanimously one of leadership, and being able to delegate out duties during an emergency. The hospital agreed that everyone working in the ward, the building, the laboratory or whatever the workspace was, would take on the role of the fire warden, and receive training on it.
Elaborating on this, Douglas highlights that it is often the most senior person on the shift that is ultimately in charge in the event of a fire alarm, and part of this involves telling other fire wardens to check that certain rooms or areas in their building are evacuated. With this shared responsibility across all staff, training remains an important part of their fire safety programme.
Looking at some of the typical fire warden training courses on offer from training providers, the training can vary significantly in duration, and is delivered either online, via live virtual classrooms or in person with practical demonstrations. One organisation which offers training to their members is the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), which caters for the training needs of thousands of workers.
It provides a 45-minute e-learning course on fire safety, via their website, which details the responsibilities of fire wardens, how fires start and what to do in the event of a fire. Head of learning and development with the CIF, Robert Butler, told HSR that whilst this course is popular, it is a general course on the fire hazards relevant to construction sites, including the risk of arson, storage of fuels, use of hot work permits and more. For more site-specific and detailed fire warden training, the CIF can tailor the content to the needs of the company e.g., residential building works and its fire hazards.
Returning to the topic of training with James McConnell, he agrees that e-learning is good for the basics of fire safety for staff, but when it comes to the specifics of fire warden training, the practical element is critical. “Practical fire warden training involves walking through the building with the fire warden, bringing them out the alternative escape routes, which many would not be familiar with, and discussing issues specific to their work environment”.
From the perspective of a hospital environment, Douglas Iler also recommends tailoring fire safety training to the needs of the specific employees and their work environment. In tandem with 30-minute zoom sessions provided for employees on fire safety procedures, he also delivers training on the wards and in other departments, where employees have to go through the actions of what to do during a fire alarm situation.
Remote worker fire safety
Another hot potato for many employers is the issue of fire safety in the remote worker’s home and where the responsibility for this lies. Turning to the guidance provided by the HSA on working from home, it states that minimising the risk of fire should be managed as part of the day-to-day running of the home, that smoke and carbon dioxide alarms will give advance warning of any potential issues and that fire blankets and fire extinguishers should be available.
Posing the question of responsibility to James McConnell, he suggests that remote workers’ homes would benefit from a fire risk assessment, which could be done remotely, in a similar way to how Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessments have been done on remote workstations.
“Each company will have to look at their own policy in relation to remote workers’ fire safety. Some people will have less than adequate fire prevention measures in their home, or may have converted a bedroom into an office and have specific fire hazards which need to be addressed”.
Douglas acknowledges that in the context of the fire safety of hospital staff who work remotely, employees may need their own home evacuation plan. Other safety practitioners have raised concerns around what happens if there is a fire in a remote worker’s home when the worker is ‘at work’.
Speaking with assistant chief fire officer of Limerick City and County Council, Ger O’Donoghue, he advises that homes used as workplaces at a minimum should have a smoke alarm, an emergency evacuation plan and unobstructed exits. He also advises that workplaces have a plan in place to deal with fire wardens who are absent, as the consequences to life and safety could be serious if the plan is compromised.
With this in mind, it remains clear that fire safety will remain on the agenda for employers and employees and that some of the challenges related to fire wardens, training and remote working will continue to evolve over time.
Contacts included in this article include Dublin city civil defence officer James McConnell, email firstname.lastname@example.org, Mater Misericordiae University hospital fire prevention officer Douglas Iler, email email@example.com, Construction Industry Federation head of learning and development Robert Butler, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and Limerick City and County Council assistant chief fire officer Ger O’Donoghue, email email@example.com.
This article is reproduced courtesy of Health & Safety Review.