Fire risk and the return to office

Fire risk and the return to office | Insurance Business America

Fire risk and the return to office

Fire is one of the oldest and most devastating risks businesses face. A fire can completely destroy a business’ premises and equipment in a very short time, as well as seriously injure or kill employees, visitors and customers.

With many businesses’ facilities seeing reduced use due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fire risk management may slip, and fewer eyes watching the premises could mean potential fire hazards may not be detected and remedied until it’s too late. Managing fire risk is also important as employees gear up to return to offices, with businesses conducting a lot of clean-up or maintenance work.

According to Robert Tull (pictured above), assistant vice president of risk solutions at QBE North America, failing to prepare is the main mistake businesses make when it comes to fire risk.

“A fire is one of the most devastating events to happen to a business, so it is vital to have a fire safety plan in place,” Tull said. “When it comes to planning, it is a big mistake for companies to fail to perform regular planned maintenance or to incorporate downtime for inspection and testing. Impairments need to be performed annually at a minimum and in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and local standards. Proper steps need to be taken before, during and after planned maintenance.”

Another common mistake made by businesses, Tull said, is that they sometimes fail to check in with their insurer after an emergency or unplanned impairment or prior to a planned impairment.

“Keeping in regular contact with your insurer can help make these safety events as effective as they can be and help keep companies as safe as they can be,” he said. “As part of our fire prevention toolkit, QBE provides clients with a comprehensive checklist to help perform a fire safety inspection.”

Return-to-office issues

Prior to the pandemic, with almost the entire workforce present on the premises, most businesses placed huge importance on employee safety. However, with many offices almost empty and employees working from home, businesses may neglect proper maintenance of fire systems and other safety matters.

“Companies have undergone significant challenges and changes in the last year, so revisiting processes and plans for a catastrophic event like a fire is of utmost importance,” Tull said. “With more and more people returning to their offices this fall and winter, having properly managed and maintained fire protection systems are critical to safeguarding facilities against catastrophic destruction. When a fire protection or detection system is shut down or impaired, whether planned or unplanned, the ability to withstand and contain a fire is severely diminished, leaving a business facility vulnerable to damage and disruption.”

Before, during and after

Tull offered some tips on how risk managers can keep their organizations’ premises safe from fires, especially in the ongoing transition back to in-office work. Risk and facility managers should always remember to take necessary actions before, during and after an impairment to greatly reduce the risk of a fire breaking out.

“Before a planned impairment, companies should perform a detailed risk assessment and ensure local and nearby hazards can be protected, contained, or eliminated,” he said. “It’s also important to make sure you have the right materials and people on hand before the impairment begins, to minimize the shut-down period. Key people in operations, emergency response teams, and the local fire and rescue services (if appropriate) as well as your remote alarm monitoring station, need to be notified. And while it seems like an obvious thing, it’s important to remember to hang out-of-service tags on equipment that is or will be impaired.”

During impairment of fire control systems, companies must be vigilant for any possible fire hazards in or close to the premises. Employees and contractors must also be informed that fire control is impaired and must be restricted from performing unnecessary or hazardous activities that could increase fire risk.

“Halt hazardous production processes and prohibit ‘hot work’ in the area and continue to work on repairing the impaired fire control equipment, until completed, if possible,” Tull said. “If it must be left overnight, ensure that security patrols the area and that other precautions are maintained.”

After maintenance or repair work is completed and the impairment is set to be lifted, managers must make sure everything is back in working condition.

“First, inspect the area and witness a performance test or sprinkler alarm test to verify that it has been properly returned to service,” Tull said. “Re-lock valves, reset control panels, inform your remote monitoring station, and remove the out-of-service tags from functioning equipment.”

After facing the largest business disruption since the Second World War in the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are keen to avoid another major disruption such as fire, which can be prevented through due diligence.

“After living through these unprecedented and difficult times over the past year and a half, I think companies are more cautious than ever and don’t want to risk another event to disrupt business, halt revenue, and prevent people from getting back to their physical places of work,” Tull said. “We are continually working to help companies with their fire safety plans and to make sure they have up-to-date information available.”