Is there a fire hazard waiting to happen right under your desk?

A large number of office fires are caused by electrical devices which are faulty or used incorrectly. Many could have been avoided if employees had better knowledge of what to look out for.

According to the Home Office’s official figures during 2017, there were 11,217 accidental fires in commercial buildings across the UK. This category includes all workplaces that are situated indoors, including factories and offices.

The most common causes of fire in office environments include:

As offices are notoriously hectic—with employees coming and going throughout the day—these common hazards can easily go unnoticed. There is also the undeniable factor that office workers tend to assume potential health and safety issues are not their problem, when in fact they most certainly are.

To find out more about how to make the office a fully safe environment, we asked officials in fire prevention and health and safety—Brad Wilson from Triangle Fire Safety; Chris Hassall, Hygiene & Safety Consultant at uComply Risk Management; and John Greenfield, Chartered Safety & Health Practitioner at Duke Health and Safety Management—for some potentially life-saving advice.

Here’s what we discovered:

What are the main causes of office fires?

Brad: In the main, office-related fires are due to faulty or overloaded electrical equipment along with heating. This will not be the fixed heating system, but people bringing electrical fan heaters into the office environment which are then allowed to come into contact with fuel sources.

Chris: In 2017/2018 there were 551 fires in offices and call centres—these resulted in one fatality. A large proportion—101 fires—were deliberate (arson), while the remaining were accidental. So far as I’m aware there isn’t a breakdown of what the accidental consists of. However, broader statistics for buildings that are non-dwellings show “Other” as the most common cause—perhaps not surprising as it covers a multitude of causes—but this is followed by faulty appliances or leads.

John: The most likely cause of fires could indeed be from electrical equipment. Other sources of heat would have to be from a heater or a person smoking, for example.

Which devices most commonly start electrical fires?

Brad: Overloaded sockets and extension cables will be one of the highest risks. Older buildings are not designed to cope with the amount of electrical equipment we need today. It is quite common to go in to older premises and see a maze of trailing cables under desks. These will often be missed from annual tests due to the fact that they go unnoticed. Also they are prone to damage, being pulled and caught around office furniture.

There has also been a rise in mobile phone chargers overheating as most of us never unplug them. They remain in the socket until they are needed elsewhere or they fail. There are many “knock-off” chargers available on the internet which are the main cause—I would recommend only using branded chargers.

Chris: Personally I’d think that equipment that produces heat is more likely to start a fire—so cooking equipment and heaters.

John: The most common devices are more likely to be a high-current device—a heat producing, say—or an overloaded device, but any electrical device could cause an electrical fire.

What can people do to help prevent these devices from becoming fire risks?

Brad: This falls on the “responsible person”—the person who oversees fire safety, the fire risk assessment and the testing identified within it. They should ensure that ALL electrical equipment is PAT tested, minimise the use of extension cables where possible, and make sure only approved products are used. There are many wireless charging products on the market now which are a safe option. Only allow additional heaters that the company has approved—open electrical fan heaters pose a huge risk, so other options should be looked at.

Chris: It is important to consider where high-risk pieces of equipment are positioned—putting your heater under your desk near reams of paper, your gym outfit and your nylon hi-vis jacket is a recipe for disaster. Also, electrical equipment that only comes out for a short period and is then put back in storage—such as Christmas decorations—are likely to be missed during PAT testing, are sometimes from poor-quality manufacturers and aren’t always stored in the best conditions. Ultimately it is vital these items are sourced from a reputable supplier, are included in PAT testing and electrical safety regimes and are stored appropriately.

John: The main actions or controls to minimise an electrical fire is regular testing by a competent person and regular inspections. Also using the correct equipment in the right conditions.

Who is responsible for preventing/dealing with office fires?

Brad: There will be—or rather should be—a person identified in the organisation as the “responsible person”. This person has to ensure that the business has a current fire risk assessment and is complying with the Regulatory Reform Order 2005 in all matters relating to fire safety, including fire alarm testing, portable fire equipment supply and testing, training of staff and fire evacuation procedures. The responsible person may also be the person who ensures that all electrical equipment is PAT tested. If this falls on another person or department to carry out, the responsible person must satisfy themselves that this has been done.

Chris: The “responsible person”—typically the employer within that premises—is tasked with ensuring fire safety controls are in place. However, under broader health and safety legislation it is pretty much everyone who is responsible in some way for preventing fires—whether it is an employee making sure they use a piece of equipment as trained, or a contractor making sure they work safely while in another workplace.

John: Ultimately, by law, the employer is responsible for all health and safety provisions but landlords could also have duties. The employer may assign such duties to an employee such as a manager to ensure the correct actions take place. As a result, those employees will have some legal duties.

Does PAT testing items prevent fires? Do you believe that all companies PAT test items as standard or do you think the process often gets overlooked?

Brad: PAT testing can reduce the risk of fires in offices and I would always recommend that it is carried out. There is an argument of course that PAT testing is valid on the day but the following day anything could be faulty. That said, the risks will be reduced greatly if regular PAT testing is carried out and it will identify any issues with equipment. In addition to PAT testing, it is advisable to have the full electrical system of any premises inspected every five years to ensure that all trips and distribution boards are in good condition. In my experience larger companies will have a programme for PAT testing which they will carry out each year. However, smaller companies do often overlook this or see it as an unnecessary cost.

Chris: PAT testing can help identify faulty equipment that could cause a fire, but, like an MOT for a car, it is only a snapshot of the condition of the equipment at that time. PAT testing should only be part of an electrical safety process—it is important staff are vigilant in looking out for damaged electrical equipment and that a system is in place for removing damaged electrical equipment from use. In my experience larger companies tend to have pretty solid PAT testing regimes in place. Smaller companies’ electrical safety tends to be reactive rather than proactive, meaning PAT testing isn’t high on the priority list.

What should employees do if there is an electrical fire in their office?

Brad: If an employee discovers a fire they must first activate the fire alarm using a “break glass” call point or raise the alarm in accordance with company policy. The following actions will depend on company policy. It will either be to leave the building by the nearest available fire exit and report to the designated fire assembly point, leaving all personal belongings behind and closing all doors and windows where possible. Or, it may be that if it is safe to do so and the employee is trained in how to use portable fire extinguishers, they may tackle the fire, first switching off any electrical supply to the item on fire. I cannot stress enough that if this is company policy you should ONLY do this if it is safe to do so. At no point should any employee put themselves or others in danger. It is imperative that all employees know their fire safety procedure and act according to it. If in any doubt, get out and stay out until the lead fire warden or fire marshal tells you it is safe to re-enter the building.

Chris: Every workplace is different—it is important that employees follow the fire procedures for their workplace. If they are unsure they should ask their employer for training on this. However, ultimately all fire procedures are likely to follow a similar format—make others aware of the fire (likely by sounding the alarm) and make your way outside to a place of safety.

John: If there is an electrical fire or any other classification of fire in an office, employees should follow the company’s fire emergency procedure. Normally, this means switching off such power sources, activating the alarm if safe to do so—unless this is assigned to someone else—and leaving the premises by the fire exits to assemble at the muster point.

Aside from the obvious danger to employees, how else can office fires affect a company?

Brad: There are currently no up-to-date figures on fires in the “non-domestic” sector as it takes a few years for them to find their way into the public domain. However, on average the annual cost to industry is £7 billion and the average cost per business affected by fire in excess of £21,000. Further studies show that many businesses that have suffered a significant fire subsequently end up out of business due to lack of insurance cover, customers going elsewhere and legal failings within the business resulting in fines and imprisonment.