Fire is a potential hazard in all workplaces, more of a risk in some than in others. Further, there may be a number of other reasons why workers may have to evacuate. Has the employer done everything possible to reduce the risk of a fire occurring? Is there an emergency evacuation plan in place? The information provided here includes an Action Plan for reps, and a Fire Safety Assessment Form.
Fires in the work environment have significant potential to cause losses. These losses may be in the form of:
- Loss of life
- Injury to employees
- Property damage
- Product damage
- Equipment damage
- Loss of information
- Community damage; and
- Environmental damage
Fire causation factors
Many fires can be attributed to malfunctions in electrical equipment through component failure. The following can cause component failure:
- Defective components or manufacture;
- Inappropriate use
- Inadequate ventilation and overheating
- Lack of maintenance or neglect
- Mistreatment or damage
In recent times, with an increasingly long bushfire season in Victoria and around Australia, employers must also take into account the potential risks to workers of bushfires.
Flammable materials or substances stored or used incorrectly pose a potential fire risk. Poor housekeeping, for example, where waste material is stored or allowed to accumulate in inappropriate locations, such as exit routes, increases the likelihood of a fire occurring.
Some dusts (such as flour dust, coal dust, even dust from fabrics) have the potential to explode when coming into contact with an ignition source.
Under Section 21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 the employer has a duty to provide and maintain a healthy and safe working environment. This includes providing a safe system of work, information, training, supervision, and where appropriate personal protective equipment. Under Section 26, persons who manage or control workplaces must ensure that the workplace and the means of entering and leaving it are safe and without risks to health. (see summary of Duties of Employers and Duties of 'others')
In addition to the Act, the following Acts, Regulations and Australian Standards, may be relevant to this hazard in your workplace:
Compliance Code - Workplace amenities and work environment, in particular the section Responding to emergencies;
WorkSafe Guidance Note (now archived, but still useful!) - Emergency management - Developing a plan for a small organisation
The National Construction Code of Australia. This is a national code and applies to all commercial buildings in Australia. NCC 2015 was adopted by the States and Territories on 1 May 2015. NCC 2019 was adopted on May 1, 2019 and is now available. The Code calls up a number of Australian Standards and specifies what is required in terms of number of exits required, dimensions of exits and paths of travel to exits, emergency exit signs, other equipment, fire resistance and more. (The Code can now be accessed online free - upon registration at the ABCB website);
These are not regulations per se, unless called up in other regulations - however they provide advice which should be complied with. There are hundreds of Australian Standards on fire and fire control. The following are some specific Standards (some of them are a series of Standards):
- AS 3745 Planning for emergencies in facilities (provides guidance including on frequency of fire drills)
- AS 4083 Planning for emergencies - Health care facilities
- AS 4485.2 Security for health care facilities - Procedure guide
- AS MP 24 Use of lifts in emergencies
- AS 1841 Maintenance of fire protection equipment
- AS 2293.1 Emergency escape lighting and exit signs for buildings - System design, installation and operation
- AS 1940 Rules for the storage and handling of flammable and combustible liquids
- AS 2220 Rules for emergency warning and intercommunication systems for buildings
- AS 2441 Installation of fire hose reels
- AS 2444 Portable fire extinguishers - selection and location
- AS 1221 Fire hose reels
- AS 1603 Automatic fire detection and alarm systems
- AS 1851 Portable fire extinguishers (series)
- AS 3760 In-service safety inspection and testing of electrical equipment
- AS 3504 Fire blankets
The above list is not exhaustive - just a sample. A full catalogue of all Australian/New Zealand Standards can be found at the SAI Global website, which is Standards Australia's online shopsite. Please check that these are up to date
Advice and assistance on fire prevention and emergency procedures may be sought from the following sources including:
- Metropolitan Fire Brigade - Community Education Department 9665 4464
- Fire protection consultants (yellow pages)
- Standard Association of Australia 03 9693 3555
Action Plan for Health and Safety Representatives
As with all workplace hazards, fire should be dealt with in this way:
- Identification of the hazard
- Assessment of the risk
- Control: Elimination or reduction of the risk
- Review and evaluation of any control strategies.
1 - Identification of Fire Hazards
- Ensure you look for fire hazards as part of your regular workplace inspections. Use checklists to identify fire hazards and to check the effectiveness of warning systems and emergency procedures.
- Develop specific checklists to enable the process of identification to be carried out. These checklists should be developed either with other OHS reps or the OHS Committee. You can download a brief checklist here - you will need to adapt it for your workplace.
- Ensure that the employer has provided you with all relevant information to identify and assess any hazards. This includes Material Safety Data Sheets for all substances used and stored at the workplace, properties of building materials, etc
- Discuss the issue of fire hazards with members of your designated work group.
- Ensure that all incidents are recorded.
- If you are in a bushfire area, ensure your employer has planned for the potential risks to workers and others
2 - Assessment of the risk
- Check all MSDS to ensure that flammable substances are used and stored correctly.
- Check any past incidents.
3 - Control: Elimination/reduction of risk
As with other hazards, the preferred order of control should be followed - start by trying to eliminate the hazard at the design stage. Sometimes a combination of control methods should be used.
Consider the following:
- Has the rep/OHS Committee been given access to all relevant publications such as Codes of Practice, Acts, Regulations, and Australian Standards?
- Has the workplace been designed to eliminate or minimise the risk of fire?
- Can ignition sources (sparks, flames, and heat sources) be eliminated from the workplace?
- Can inflammable materials be eliminated from the workplace?
- Have work practices been designed to eliminate or minimise the risks associated with fire?
- Can workplace practices be changed to eliminate fire risks?
- Has the workplace been designed to facilitate fire fighting and emergency procedures in the case of fire?
- Has the Employer/HSR/OHS Committee contacted the Fire Brigade for advice on fire prevention?
- Has the HSR/OHS Committee surveyed employees for suggestions and recommendations for improvements in the area of fire safety?
- Have arrangements been made so that all new employees receive induction training? This must include fire procedure training.
- Can fire resistant furnishings and furniture minimise fire risks?
- Can less flammable materials be used in the workplace?
- Can the quantities be reduced and/or the form be changed?
- Can inflammable materials and ignition sources be isolated from each other and from workers? Isolation may mean isolation by distance, or by barriers.
- Can ventilation/exhaust fans etc, prevent the build up of inflammable or explosive gases?
- What warning systems can be installed to signal hazardous pre-fire situations or actual outbreaks in the early stages?
- Can the workplace layout be changed to facilitate fire fighting and emergency procedures?
- Can heat-producing equipment be kept away from the walls to enable air circulation?
- Can fire doors, fire windows and shutters be installed to delay the spread of fire?
- Can additional storage facilities be installed to reduce the fire risk?
- Are the means of access and exit adequately sign-posted and readily accessible?
- Has a housekeeping program been implemented to minimise the fire risk? Is it being practised?
- Is there a maintenance system to prevent fires? (eg maintenance of electrical equipment, removal of refuse, etc.)
- Is there a maintenance system to ensure that warning systems and fire fighting equipment are in working order?
- Are extinguishers appropriate for the type of fire risk?
- Is there a system to ensure emergency procedures will work? (eg to ensure that exits are not blocked or locked?)
- Are signs adequate for fire prevention and for emergency procedures?
- Is all staff suitably trained in fire prevention and emergency procedures? In some cases the training may need to be in different languages.
- Are all emergency response teams trained in the case of a fire situation?
Personal protective clothing
- Will the protective clothing and equipment issued minimise burns or other harm such as smoke inhalation suffered by a worker in the event of fire?
- Is breathing apparatus required/supplied/available?
- Are fire blankets provided?
Fire and Emergency Evacuation Plan
It is important that your workplace have a simple plan to respond to emergencies. This will reduce the potential for injury and illness and avoid panic.
The health and safety rep/OHS Committee should develop the plan in consultation with all employees. All employees should receive a copy of the plan, which should also be posted on notice boards. It is vital that all employees are trained in the emergency procedures outlined in the plan.
The emergency plan should cover:
- Immediate action to stop or minimise the hazard (eg use of fire extinguishers if trained);
- the need to stay calm;
- who to call to raise the alarm;
- how to notify emergency personnel (ambulance, fire brigade, SES, electricity, gas, police);
- how, when and where to evacuate;
- names of the key leaders responsible for making decisions during the emergency (and their duties eg, a warden);
- how to establish and use a fail-safe communications system.
Plans work best when they are reviewed and updated.
A Guidance Note for Preparing for Emergency Evacuations at the Workplace has been issued by the Western Australian Commission for Occupational Safety and Health to provide guidance on preparing for emergency evacuations at the workplace and some of the legislative requirements under that state's OHS Act. It provides useful advice adaptable to all workplaces.
The Community Education Department of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a number of private companies can provide assistance (for a fee) with the preparation of emergency plans. The contact phone number for the MFB Community Education Department is 03) 9665 4464. Look the Yellow Pages, under 'Fire Protection Equipment and Consultants' to find private companies.
For employers/workplaces in bushfire areas, the Victorian CFA has developed a guide for businesses on the development of such a plan. See: A Guide for businesses: developing a Bushfire Emergency Plan in Victoria [pdf]
Ensure the employer organises a few test runs to check on the key components of the communication systems and evacuation procedures. These should be repeated these regularly.
- Fire Escapes - What are the rules?
- From SafeWork Australia: Evacuation Procedures Fact Sheet [pdf] An emergency plan must provide for the following: emergency procedures, including: − an effective response to an emergency. − evacuation procedures.
- Workplaces have a variety of potential fire risks depending on their type and location. This section includes information for a wide range of workplace environments. The Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) has a range of resources on its website.
- From WorkSafe WA: Evacuation Procedures fact sheet for evacuation procedures and diagram essentials
- from the UK's peak union council: Fire safety: A TUC guide for union activists [pdf], September 2017. This guide was produced following the Grenfell fire and explains what is required from a thorough fire safety assessment, and looks at how to implement fire safety policies that will prevent and protect workers. There's also a checklist for reps on what to look out for in terms of fire safety when they carry out their workplace inspections.
Last amended December 2019