Fire risk assessment critical to planning hot works

A report submitted to the Collaborative Reporting for Safer Structures UK (CROSS-UK) singles out poor practices that contributed to a Grade 1 listed church being badly damaged by a fire while renovation was taking place on its lead roof. 

A simple fire risk assessment would have prevented the use of a blowtorch next to the thatched roof, which caught alight and resulted in a flames spreading throughout the building. 

What happened?

The roof of a Grade 1 listed church was being renewed after the lead has been stolen and the sub-contractor appointed to undertake the work placed the replacement material next to a thatched element of the roofing. 

As the work was being carried out during cold weather, the sub-contractor was using a blowtorch to ‘warm the lead to allow it to be unrolled’. At some point, the thatch caught alight and the resulting fire substantially damaged the church.

According to the report: "The thatch was completely lost… along with most of the roof structure and the contents of the church, including the stained glass windows. There were also serious concerns about the structural integrity of the church tower following the fire."

The incident report

The report notes that it was unsafe to use the blowtorch next to a thatch. It had been very dry over the previous months and the thatch was also quite old and dusty. 

Although a hot work permit had been granted by the church inspector, the report adds that it was not clear if any conditions were passed on to the sub-contractors.

For example, the Lead Sheet Association and other bodies have introduced a policy of removing hot works from buildings to prevent incidents like this from happening. 

A simple alternative is to erect a scaffolding platform remotely from the roof so the hot works that use a naked flame can be carried out away from a thatched building.

The report advises that the "potential consequence of fire needs to be considered before a hot work permit is granted".

"This needs to be addressed, at the very minimum, by a fire risk assessment of the hot works on the roof to be undertaken and a hot work permit should be granted for each instance and use," says the report.

What can members learn?

Hot work should not be undertaken in close proximity to a thatched roof; a failure to manage fire risk may result in the total loss of a property and potentially could even lead to enforcement action.

The report notes that where it is not possible to remove the hot works from a roof, for example, where repairs are essential, then the individual works must always be risk assessed.

Suitable fire extinguishers should also be provided. However, according to the report, the best option is an aqueous one because CO2 or dry powder ones won’t provide suitable cover on a roof. 

If hot works are to be carried out and there is no alternative other than to undertake the work in situ, the report stresses that doing it earlier in the day is better because this allows the material to cool down. Also, a thermal imaging camera could be helpful to check that there is no fire risk before the working day ends.

CROSS-UK’s expert panel adds members should be mindful that work of this nature falls under the CDM Regulations 2015. It also points to useful guidance that the National Farmers’ Union Mutual Insurance Society has produced on hot works which it adds should be used as a "default reference document".

As many thatch properties are located in remote, hard-to-reach areas, the panel also advises consulting the local fire and rescue service when work is planned to provide reassurance.

More information is available here.

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