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Consultant cites government ‘inertia’ as UK fire safety lags behind EU

By Ben Bouckley , 30-Jul-2010
Last updated the 30-Jul-2010 at 12:56 GMT

The UK lags behind other EU countries in terms of fire safety, according to a leading fire safety expert.

Peter Jackman, chairman and technical director, International Fire Consultants said that UK requirements regarding the incorporation of fire prevention measures into food manufacturing premises lagged behind those of EU counterparts.

“It is less a question of economics or affordability than one of political inertia – simply because we live in a culture where the government favours a light-fingered approach to industry regulation,” he said.

Commercial fire damage cost insurers £833m in 2009, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), who in a recent report on rising costs for insurers recommended a government review to examine the benefits of fire containment methods.

Specifically, the ABI called for more sprinklers and specialised compartments (walls) to limit the spread of fires – given that current building regulations from 1982 were “focused on life safety and not property protection.”

Reform needed?

The subsequent Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 did stipulate that warehouses in England and Wales presenting a ‘normal hazard’ and exceeding 20,000m2 must have sprinklers fitted. But in Scotland the threshold is only 14,000m2, and it stands at just 1,200m2 in Germany.

Jackman said: “Bar limited provisions regarding sprinklers, successive governments have left decisions regarding them, and other measures [such as fire compartments] to building owners – subject to Fire and Rescue Authority decisions about adequacy of prevention methods.”

More fire compartments

Unlike their EU counterparts, Jackman said that UK food manufacturers saw fire compartments as a hindrance to long production lines: “Compartmentalised working environments are not a major aspect of UK factories, and when compartmentalisation is done at all it is often done poorly.

“Other EU countries are much better than us at measures such as running conveyor belts through fire walls and fitting fire floors. We don’t do enough by comparison.”

He said that one reason for this inaction was a trend towards maximising capacity by utilising open-plan working areas, which the ABI report identifies as one reason why general UK fire insurance premiums more than doubled between 2002 and 2008.

Hot working

According to Jackman, one of the most notable causes of fire that he continually encountered in the food manufacturing sphere was so-called ‘hot working’:

“This is where maintenance work is undertaken with tools such as blowtorches, with scant regard to related fire hazards in the immediate environment. The issue recurs time and time again.”

“Sandwich panels with good hygiene and insulative qualities are prone to combustion, while electrical fires also account for a large number of incidents – but I imagine there will always be problems in this respect, simply because of the nature of food production,” he added.