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This article describes the responsibilities of employers and organisations to provide a safe work environment referring to Australian legislation, regulations and standards.
Fire is a risk factor which must be taken into account in every workplace, but those risks can be managed and minimised through thorough preparation and a well-communicated evacuation plan.
Beyond physical risks for staff and employees, workplace fires destroy value and, depending on their severity, impact on business continuity.
Property, products, and equipment can be damaged and destroyed, along with information and intellectual property. There is also the risk of damage to the environment, the community, and ultimately to the brand value of the business.
This potential costs and losses of workplace fire mean that, beyond their legal obligations, organisations should seek to implement best practice preparation and prevention strategies as a priority.
All employers should know their obligations under Section 21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 2004, which says the employer has a duty to provide a health and safe working environment.
Then there are a range of other regulations and standards which are relevant, from the Compliance Code, the Dangerous Goods Act, WorkSafe regulations and obligations under the Construction Code and for the handling of Hazardous Substances.
These regulations and standards lay out the compliance regime and parameters for a safe workplace and detail the employer’s responsibility, but in reality, compliance should just be a starting point for a comprehensive program of fire risk minimisation.
A good place to start is to look at causation factors.
- Many fires, for example, can be attributed to malfunctions in electrical equipment through component failure, brought on by overwork, inappropriate use, poor maintenance or damage. Some equipment is simply too old, and its age becomes a danger factor.
- Flammable materials stored or used incorrectly also pose a major risk.
- In many cases, this is because of poor housekeeping when dangerous materials are allowed to accumulate in locations, such as exit routes, which can heighten the risk of fire.
- Poor housekeeping also enables the accumulation of dust, such as flour dust, coal, and even dust from fabrics.
- If this material is allowed to come into contact with fire, there is the potential for unforeseen explosions which can accelerate already dangerous situations.
In devising an action plan, organisations should recognise that employees can be part of the risk management solution.
Engaged employees participating in health and safety, either formally through committees or informally, are critical to organisational preparedness.
They can have input to a rigorous approach, which begins with the identification of hazards and moves through an assessment of risk to elimination and control and then to a review and evaluation process.
This process begins with inspections, the creation of detailed checklists and the distribution of relevant information through the workplace. In identifying hazards, all incidents must be recorded and logged so there is an organisational memory created.
Once the risks are assessed, a number of strategies should be pursued to eliminate or control the risk. These include audits on the design of the workplace and work processes and practices.
- Should the workplace be reconfigured or redesigned?
- Can work practices be improved to minimise risk?
- Have professional organisations such as the Fire Brigade been engaged as part of this process to give advice on fire prevention?
- Are all staff sufficiently aware and adequately trained in fire procedures?
Organisations should also consider opportunities for substituting materials to minimise risk. Fire-resistant furnishings and furniture can play a role here, and if possible, can less-flammable materials be used in the workplace without impacting on productivity and output?
A proactive risk approach also factors in issues around engineering, rigorous administration and ultimately the provision of personal protective clothing, and other equipment such as breathing apparatus.
Finally, the organisation needs a clear fire and emergency evacuation plan, as this will reduce the potential for injury and illness and help avoid panic.
With the full engagement relevant safety representatives, the emergency plan should be distributed to all employees as well as being posted on workplace notice boards.
The plan needs to cover action points, detail responsibilities on the raising of alarms, identify key leaders and include a notification and communications protocol.
Emergency plans work best when they are reviewed and updated, and when regular drills are conducted to remind employees of the risks, and what action they need to take in emergencies.
Fire is an ever-present risk and the consequences can be severe and wide-ranging. A rigorous, proactive and comprehensive plan which engages all staff can save lives and minimise commercial damage.
Just as organisations strive for best practice in the services they deliver and the products they make, so they should commit to best practice emergency planning.