Best Laid Plans, Health & Safety At Work, November 2014

There are many potential hazards on construction sites although fire and smoke present the greatest threat to life and, when out of hours, loss of physical assets. Here, Paul Henson, Sales and Marketing Director at Ramtech Electronics, looks at latest best practice when it comes to emergency evacuation procedures.

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), the construction sector has one of the worst occupational health and safety records in Europe. Against this background, the cost of accidents are immense and growing.

Traditionally, fire detection systems used on construction sites have been of the wired variety, which meant they had to be installed by electricians or specialist contractors. This could be a lengthy and costly process and required numerous electrical cables and fire points, all of which had to be moved frequently as construction progressed. As a result, many companies were understandably reluctant to install fixed-wire systems.

That meant relying on manual emergency evacuation procedures, which could simply mean a nominated fire officer sounding an alarm after a fire had been detected. This kind of approach, which relied on visually seeing fire or smoke, is far from ideal especially as it may mean a fire going undetected for crucial minutes or even longer if it was in an isolated part of the site.

Worse still, if it occurs out of hours, like at the University of Nottingham, the fire can rage undetected for hours with the end result a building that is completely destroyed and the loss of assets running into many hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Human nature in a real emergency is difficult to predict at best, too. Conversely, a well planned procedure based on latest technology results in reduced risk of human error and improved decision making in a real crisis. This is particularly important on construction sites where the priority is to evacuate personnel as quickly as possible.

The recent disaster at the partially built £20m laboratory at the University of Nottingham, whilst not resulting in injury or loss of life, mainly because it occurred out of work hours, highlights what can happen when an emergency evacuation system relies on human intervention.

In this case the correct procedures had been followed in carrying out a risk assessment at the outset. Nominated fire officers and muster point locations were clearly identified and followed required protocol, yet because the fire broke out at 8.21pm on a Friday night, it went undetected for some time and ended up completely destroying the partially completed £20m timber framed building.

It is hardly surprising that this developer has now taken positive steps to fit automatic fire detection on its sites. By preference they chose a wireless system because of its ease of installation – being wireless means it offers plug ‘n play benefits. Another crucial benefit of wireless systems is that they can incorporate active fire detection via heat and smoke detectors, so don’t rely on someone being present on site. That could have mitigated asset losses at the university by sending an alert to the nominated fire officer, aside from the peace of mind benefits from knowing that even the most isolated corners of the site have 24 hour protection against fire.

Improved efficiency
Other construction companies looking to adapt latest best practice find that a wireless emergency system offers them the best way forward. They are significantly easier to install, avoiding the need for specialist trades during set up and, because they are wireless, allow for easy repositioning of the fire points and heat detection units as the site progresses. Technology of this kind not only provides a cost-effective and easy route to compliance, but enables the number and location of units to be tailored to each site, depending on requirements.

Aside from the regulatory requirement, an increasing number of construction companies are choosing wireless emergency systems not just because they can save lives, but due to the fact they are relatively inexpensive. Yet, during a real emergency, they can significantly reduce consequential losses running to several million pounds. Had the fire at the University of Nottingham been detected earlier the complete loss of the building may have been avoided.

There are also clear efficiency reasons why a wireless system demonstrates best practice for health and safety managers looking to benchmark their existing arrangements against. For example, advances in technology virtually eliminate false alarms – another issue on site – because latest units are fitted with Category 1 wireless receivers, which are the most reliable currently available. It’s also important that it incorporates dust-proofing features, again to reduce false alarms. Dust on site is a common issue and a problem with some systems is that they sense dust as smoke, which triggers a false alarm.

Base station monitoring
Latest wireless emergency systems comprise fire points and heat detection units or dustproof smoke detectors, linked to a monitoring base station. In the event of a fire, the system triggers a high volume siren and a visual strobe light, alerting personnel to evacuate the site.

At the same time, the base station allows the fire officer to instantly identify which fire point or detection unit has been activated, allowing fire and rescue teams to be deployed more effectively to the exact source of the fire. Once the project is complete, the system, which requires no cables and is battery-powered, can simply be moved to the next project.

The Base Station provides SMS text alerts in the event of an alarm being activated allowing personnel to keep tight control on fire safety when they are off site, providing 24 hour protection. To make reconfiguration easier, we have developed asystem app that can be used on any Android tablet, making it fully mobile. It is possible to download an app via Google Play , which goes beyond simple configuration and enables much more extensive reporting on the system health.

So, it can be seen that wireless emergency systems set out best practice when it comes to protecting personnel and assets from fires on construction sites. At the same time they offer several other benefits, including the fact that they are easy to fit and operate, have no cables and therefore zero installation costs and offer 24 hour protection, which is especially important when the site is unattended.

The industry is beginning to embrace wireless technology and those construction companies that invest in it have already made a significant contribution to reversing the worrying statistic that construction sites are one of the worst offenders in terms of health and safety.”

This article was published in Health & Safety At Work magazine, October 2014

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