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Extinguishing the risks of half-term hot works

Tilden Watson, Head of Education at Zurich Municipal, discusses the best ways for schools to manage risks associated with hot works

Posted by Lucinda Reid | June 02, 2017 | Security & safety

With children away from schools for half term, schools across the country will be planning to use the opportunity of empty classrooms and play grounds to carry out vital maintenance.

Whilst not having pupils around may help getting the work done easier, there are still several risks associated with maintenance – especially hot works such as welding and grinding. Data in Zurich Municipal’s (ZM) recently published guide to hot works shows that hot work is responsible for up to 15% of all fires in commercial and industrial properties; anecdotal evidence from ZM’s claims experts suggests that this figure could actually be higher for schools. Fires related to hot works have caused £69.8m in damage in the UK over the last ten years and are responsible for over 1000 workplace accidents every year. It’s therefore vital that schools take the necessary steps to reduce the risks.

Knowing the risks

Whenever hot works take place, the potential risks to staff and pupils as well as school property are numerous. As well as fire damage, there is also the risk of explosions if sparks come into contact with flammable materials, not to mention the harm that can be caused through burns and inhalation of fumes. In addition to physical damage to people and property, a hot works incident can cause significant disruption to a school as well as potential reputational damage. The inherent risk is often exacerbated by poor practices and processes such as failing to fully understand the scope and nature of works, not selecting the right certified contractor to do the work and failing to properly monitor the work taking place.

ZM’s in-depth guide to hot works recommends that a school should first establish whether it even needs to carry out the work, and consider whether it’s possible to avoid processes that generate significant heat or sparks. For instance, certain cutting tasks could be done using hand or electric saws, or pipe cutters, while hand filing may be an alternative to grinding.

But if a school decides that hot works is absolutely needed then it must be aware of the risks involved. As with any major risk, a thorough assessment is one of the main ways schools can mitigate the threats posed by hot works. Chris Roberts, the current Secretary General of the Institute of Fire Safety Managers with 30 years’ experience as a fire officer, has previously expressed his frustration at schools that fail to take the time to properly identify the risks and needs of their institution. 

For example, many schools place fire extinguishers in corridors and other passageways where they can be easily damaged or tampered with, potentially rendering them useless when actually needed. It would instead be better to place them in classrooms, where they are more likely to be kept in working order and are accessible to those who know how to use them.

Asking the right questions

As schools are unlikely to have the properly trained personnel and specialist equipment in-house, they are highly likely to choose an external contractor to carry out the work. However it is vital that schools retain ownership of the project, and be prepared to ask a few probing questions to satisfy themselves that the work will be carried out safely and to a high standard.

Schools could ask the potential contractor for references from previous work, as well as method statements and details about their quality control systems. If a contractor is not able to give proper answers when asked about the procedures they have in place to keep buildings safe, that should set alarm bells ringing. Even after a school is satisfied with the credibility of a contractor and hire them, they should always check that they are doing the work they said they would do and be prepared to challenge them if there is any doubt.

Hot works will sometimes be unavoidable for maintenance and building work on school premises. Schools can help extinguish the risks through taking the time to conduct proper risk and need assessments and carrying out due diligence on all external contracts.

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