Are you paying attention to the fire risk clutter causes?

Housekeeping Picture.jpg

This article is intended to be the first of what I hope will be many, aimed at helping businesses with their fire safety management. With years of experience to draw on, I thought sharing some of the challenges I’ve seen businesses face might be useful to encourage and help you to get to grips with those issues sooner rather than later.

One of the problems I regularly come across in premises I’m fire risk assessing is clutter. Stuff stored in cupboards, clutter blocking escape routes, attics bursting at the seams. Workshops that have become crammed full of all kinds of items that really shouldn’t be there!

From a business efficiency perspective, it makes a lot of sense to put effort into keeping tidy and organised. Otherwise the chances of quickly putting your hand on what you’re looking for could be considerably reduced! And that’s a real waste of time. A disorganised premises is unlikely to send out a great message to anyone who sees it, particularly if you have any customers visiting your site.

“In fire safety terms, the clutter is increasing the fire load.”

But obviously, from my perspective as the fire risk assessor, what really concerns me is the fact that I’m seeing combustible material and the opportunity for a fire to spread at what could be a terrifying speed.  I’m visualising people struggling to make a quick escape, or not being able to escape at all because exits are blocked or have something piled up on the other side. In fire safety terms, the clutter is increasing the fire load. That’s basically the measurement that helps fire risk assessors and other fire safety professionals calculate the likely potential severity of a fire within a given space. It looks at the amount of combustible material in a building or space and the amount of heat that could end up being generated.

It isn’t a case of people intentionally ignoring the problem from what I’ve seen.  I think many people become clutter blind at some point (we’ve all been there to a greater or lesser degree). So very often, just realising there’s a problem is a big step forward. But what next? Tackling it often feels like an impossible job and with everything else going on in your business it’s a job that’s likely to shuffle down the list.

One approach I like is based on the 5S workplace organisation methodology that originated at Toyota. (5S stands for five Japanese words starting with the letter s – seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu and shitsuke in case you were wondering!)

So here’s their English translation, along with some insights into what they mean and how it could help you:

Sort

The idea’s simple – don’t have anything in the workplace that you don’t need. This part covers eliminating everything from unused machinery all the way down to the last paperclip! It’s not easy because it involves identifying all the items that are no longer needed and disposing of them. But it’s worth the effort – you may well be amazed by how much more efficiently you can operate and also have the reassurance of the benefits from a fire safety perspective.

Ideas for getting going:

·         Break it down – maybe by room, department, process or even just by cupboard and filing cabinet. By slowly and steadily chipping away, it won’t feel like such an impossible task.

·         Ideally, set aside some time each day to do it.

·         Identify anything that could be useful to someone else and dispose of it by giving it away or selling it.

·         If things are damaged beyond repair, send for recycling as far as possible, only throwing away anything that can’t be recycled.

·         At the same time, make sure you aren’t accumulating other things! 

Set in order

Put what you have in order. Arrange everything so it can be easily found and used, and to minimise the amount of time spent fetching things (or finding them in the first place!). The more frequently you use an item, the closer it should be to your working space. Keep items in the same place. And always ensure you are organising for maximum safety.

Shine

Shine is a nice way to describe the process of cleaning and maintaining!  But it’s an important step; keeping your premises clean and preventing any deterioration of equipment makes sense on lots of levels – financial (by extending the longevity of things you own), employee wellbeing and health and safety being some of the main ones. It also encourages good habits; if something is damaged fix it immediately so you don’t end up having to quickly sort out a replacement, adding to the clutter pile.

Standardise

This refers to standardising all the possible best practices to keep on top of housekeeping and maintaining everything in order.  Sounds easy – but once you’ve had your big sort out, you’d be surprised how easy it is to go back to square one without a bit of attention to this point…

Sustain

The final stage, sustain, is about working out how to keep things in order over an even longer term. In the workplace, that could be establishing a culture where employees stay on top of housekeeping without it being part of a specific blitz. It might be building in regular audits to check on progress. Effectively, it’s the part of the process that reinforces the fact that tidying your workplace shouldn’t just be an occasional marathon but a constant process.  

Don’t forget about fire safety in your home

Lots of these principles apply in the home too.  While a slightly disorganised house isn’t an issue, excessive clutter can start to become a fire risk and at the most severe end of the spectrum is hoarding. It’s a complex issue but the dangers it poses from a fire safety perspective resulted in a national hoarding week taking place to raise awareness of the problem. If you think you may need some support with it, or just some ideas for reducing risk in your home, you’ll find some useful tips on the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Services website.

Posted: 1st August 2018

Debbie Thomas