Richard Norman explains how firms with a catering function will have to pay particular attention to the new fire safety laws, which puts greater responsibility on employers
27 May 2005
Sweeping changes made to the fire safety legislation by the new Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2004, due to come into force shortly, will place responsibility squarely on the shoulders of a designated 'responsible person', and facilities managers may well find themselves the obvious choice.
Every organisation will soon have to nominate a 'responsible person' who could be an in-house or outsourced manager, or any person deemed to be 'in control' of the premises. A key duty of the responsible person will be to undertake regular fire risk assessments.
The major change in the legislation will be that it will become an offence to ignore serious hazards identified during a risk assessment that pose a risk of death or injury to building occupants. The designated 'responsible person' could be held responsible for this offence.
Another significant reform will be the scrapping of fire certificates granted by the local authority, with greater emphasis placed on the employers' duty to carry out and act upon their own fire risk assessments. Rather than inspecting premises and fire safety equipment before issuing fire certificates, fire authorities will be empowered to check that proper risk assessments have been carried out.
This new approach is intended to bring all places of work into line with existing fire precautions and health and safety regulations which require employers to carry out fire risk assessments of the workplace and take adequate measures to ensure the safety of employees. Places of work with more than five members of staff must have a written record of the results of the assessment and the steps taken to minimise risks.
The key to all this is the all-important fire risk assessment. When carrying out one of these, the obvious fire-related areas such as inflammable materials, fire doors, escape stairways and extinguishers are usually easy to take into account. But office buildings, factories, retail outlets, schools and many other places of work, which have an in-house catering operation, have one high-risk area that is often overlooked.
It is absolutely vital that fire risk assessments of buildings with a catering operation include the grease extract ventilation system. Most commercial catering facilities have one of these to draw grease- laden air directly from the areas above cookers, grills and fryers via the cooker hood to the outside. While the filters to the cooker are designed to trap grease particles, some pass through into the extract system coating the inside of the ductwork, fan and the extract with potentially flammable deposits. These grease deposits are readily ignited by even a small flash fire on the cooker, hob or grill and flames and heat can then quickly spread through the building, causing substantial damage and endangering lives.
The cleaning of the grease extract system is frequently overlooked, often because it runs behind false ceilings or walls and, therefore, tends to be in areas that no-one feels responsible for. It is estimated that today there are as many as 90 per cent of kitchen extract ducts that remain uncleaned in the UK.
Almost a quarter of the 24,000 accidental fires in non-domestic buildings each year are attributed to cooking appliances, and in the last decade fires in grease extract ducts linked to catering facilities have caused considerable damage at Witney town centre, Heathrow Airport and South Mimms services.
In September 2002 a fire totally destroyed a hotel near Maidstone in Kent. The fire started on the kitchen range when butter, which had been melted for glazing, caught fire and the flames were quickly drawn up into the grease extract ducting beyond the canopy. Within minutes the fire had burst out of the ducting, setting light to structures and furnishings in rooms above the kitchen. By the time the Fire Brigade arrived the fire had thoroughly taken hold and the hotel was beyond saving. fortunately there were no casualties.
Fire Safety: An Employers Guide - the official guidance published in 1999 on procedures for performing risk assessments, contains the specific reminder that fire hazards should be reduced by keeping ducts and flues clean.
There have been instances where facilities staff have thought the grease extract systems had been cleaned only to find, as a result of a fire, that grease deposits had not been removed from the system. There are a number of inexperienced companies in the marketplace which do not have the skills or knowledge to do the job. It is strongly recommended that a survey, including a written and photographic report of the condition of the ductwork, be prepared by a professional contractor to enable a proper assessment to be made and the relevant action taken.
Now, particularly as a result of recent court case judgements, insurance companies are also starting to take an interest and may soon be demanding that deep cleaning should be carried out in accordance with the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association's recommendation TR17, and that only contractors who can comply with this specification should be retained.
However there have also been many cases where surveys of grease extract systems have revealed a significant build up of grease deposits that present a real fire hazard, but no remedial action has been taken.
Under the new fire safety legislation, ignoring the results of such a survey would in itself be an offence if the fire risk identified represented a threat to the safety of the building occupants.
Richard Norman is managing director of Indepth Hygiene Services