Hot work continues to cause major fires

Fire losses resulting from errors made and risks taken during hot work are all too commonplace.

By Matti Koskenkari, Pekka Sarpila and Kristian Orispää

Failure to implement the simplest safety measures can result in expensive claims, impacting business operations from project delays to, in the worst case, loss of life.

Claims data gathered over the years exposes a costly and dangerous trend, which continues from one year to the next. On construction sites around the world, inexperienced workers and contractors looking to cut corners continue to place companies under significant risk, when hot work tasks are executed incorrectly, resulting in expensive property damages.

Working with an open flame, for example when heating, welding, cutting/soldering, or when carrying out maintenance, repairing or installation work, all of which generate an excess amount of heat, posing risks that must be considered before the work begins.

Matti Koskenkari, Risk Engineer at If, highlights, “In general, working methods that use an open flame or can generate excessive heat or sparks pose a risk of a fire event. Special attention needs to be paid to roofing work. Hot work should never be carried out in direct contact or in close proximity to constructions, i.e. roofs, sandwich panels etc., containing combustible insulation.”

Despite local regulations, industry standards and on-site guidelines, it is common to find that these are often ignored, too limited in scope, and/or they feature little to no control measures.

What are the alternatives?

First, check whether hot work can be avoided. Is there a safer method, for instance machining or joining? Is it possible to move the object in question to a workshop or outside to be completed at a safe distance? When hot work is undertaken in a non-designated area, typically outside a dedicated workshop, it needs to be controlled carefully. Combustible materials and flammable liquids, dust and waste should be removed.

Careful planning to limit fire incidents

A common error is to neglect the protection of hidden spaces, such as wooden constructions, ventilation and extraction ducts and pipes, when beginning hot work. Such areas should always be protected when necessary.

Make sure that all hot work equipment is in good working condition and approved for use. Where is the nearest fire-extinguishing equipment? Is it easily accessible and is it adequate for the purpose? Do your workers know where this equipment is located? Regularly check that the sprinkler system is fully operational.

According to Pekka Sarpila, Head of Risk Management Services Finland at If, “We have many examples of well-prepared hot work tasks, where careful preparation helped to prevent a fire from spreading, thanks to capable workers planning for potential risks. Unfortunately, we have also examples that are the opposite. Number one priority must always be to prevent a fire from starting. If that happens, something has already gone wrong.”

Where is your permit?

Install a control system to all hot work tasks to increase clarity and transparency into who is allowed to conduct hot work. As an example, issuing s Hot Work Permit, unique for one single work task, to control that the work is performed as safely as possible.

Note that all hot work, conducted either by your own workforce or by external contractors, should be controlled by using the same strict procedures. If available, safety training should always be completed by persons, whether they are your own or external. Note that a certificate (sometimes called a “hot work card”) received after this training is not equivalent to a Hot Work Permit.

Know your partners and contractors

There are excellent contractors and then there are contractors who are not as competent as they should be. Make sure you know who is working on your site or project. Always use contractors who are capable and experienced with hot work. This will help you manage the risks and protect your property, as well as minimize losses. If you are unsure, consider hiring a supervisor to manage the risks involved with hot work.

Use capable and competent trainers, with the necessary certificates and accreditation to train your staff and contractors’ employees.

Access granted

Ultimately, management is accountable to what is happening on their site. They should therefore have a vested interest in appointing the competent person(s) with the authority to issue permits for hot work. These can be the fire officer, the maintenance manager or comparable, capable staff member.

They should have experience and training in the risks associated with hot work (e.g. safety training) and be of a suitable status to ensure compliance with the procedures in place. The issuer of the permit should not be the same person who will carry out the actual work.

The plant responsible personnel and the person/company carrying out hot work should perform a hazard assessment (e.g. Safe job analysis) before writing the Hot Work Permit. The safety precautions based on this assessment should be clearly specified in the permit.

Hot work needs to be controlled, no matter who is carrying out the task. Special training is a prerequisite in many countries.

At the end of the day

The affected area should be watched continuously during the work. After its completion, the area should be monitored as long as specified in the Hot Work Permit, but for one (1) hour at a minimum, to ensure that it is safe. The fire watch should have received the safety training mentioned above.

If there are automatic fire protection systems, such as sprinkler protections triggered by smoke detectors, or smoke detection systems, installed in a hot work area, these will need to be disconnected for the duration of the hot work task.

During hot works these systems in the relevant areas are disconnected, i.e. impaired, to avoid false alarms. In cases where automatic fire protection systems are switched off for more than 24 hours, If P&C Insurance needs to be informed of the impairment in advance.

One thing that must not be overlooked, is to reconnect the impaired automatic sprinkler protections and smoke detection systems. During hot work these systems in the relevant area are disconnected, i.e. impaired, to avoid false alarms. As a part of the control process, it is important to ensure that these extinguishing and detection systems are reconnected after the completion of the hot work. Other fire protection installations must be reinstated as well.

Routine tasks can be the most dangerous

In many building or installation projects (i.e. the installation of new machinery etc.), hot work is performed almost on a daily basis. In these cases, it is possible to issue a Hot Work Permit that is valid for several days, but it is not recommended to use a permit for more than a week.

However, the work conditions need to be revised by either the permit issuer or another qualified person, e.g. the shift leader, each morning or at the beginning of each work shift.

This revision needs to be documented in the permit (date/time, signature). Even for experienced workers, hot work always poses a risk, and should be planned and executed with care and attention, even when it is conducted daily.

Hot work fire examples

  • An employee ignores hot work permit protocol and decides to undertake a hot work task without a permit. The employee takes a coffee break, failing to organise the required fire watch. A spark ignites plastic insulation, causing a fire that resulted in a claim costing tens of millions (EUR).
  • Failing to move components outdoors for welding, resulted in sparks igniting a warehouse, which burned to a total loss, costing over one million euro, with severe disruptive impact on company operations.
  • Hot work carried out during demolition works in an old production and utility building caused a fire. Large amounts of water used to extinguish the fire severely damaged a critical electrical room located in the vicinity of the fire, causing a sudden temporary total shutdown in a large industrial park area.
  • Careless use of an open flame during hot work on a roof ignites the wooden construction underneath the felt, as well as behind a wall structure, leading to a massive fire. Furthermore, extinguishing water causes damage in the residential building. The constructor’s subcontractor is found liable for the damage.

“Regardless of adequate hot work permit procedures, and even when all precautions have been taken to mitigate potential fire hazard exposures caused by the hot works, it is essential to also ensure that there is always an adequate amount of first aid fire extinguishing equipment, as well as competent personnel to use this equipment, available in hot work places. This helps to ensure that if a fire breaks out during or straight after the hot works, it can be effectively extinguished immediately in its very early stage,” Matti Koskenkari concludes.

How-to guide for hot work permits

Some considerations and practical tips

The Hot Work Permit should be valid for one work shift only. It is good practice to ensure that the hot work is terminated two (2) hours before the end of a working day, in order to have staff available to conduct an inspection of the area.

The Hot Work Permit should be completed with an adequate amount of copies. One copy should be retained by the issuer, who may wish to inspect the site of the work or perform spot-checks to ensure that the conditions have been met. The second copy is handed to the person responsible for carrying out the work. The third copy could be delivered to the security department, to the gatehouse, or if applicable to the control room of the relevant production area.

Keeping the communication lines open is important. Some best practices include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • It is recommended that, upon completion of the hot work, the expiry of the fire watch period and the reinstatement of all fire protection installations, should be communicated in a timely manner to the permit issuer.
  • Hot work permits should always be signed-off only after this fire watch period is over and completed.
  • The issuer is recommended to always inspect hot work locations when the work has been completed. This is an important step in the process, which is commonly overlooked, but critical in the prevention of property loss. For example, the incorrect handling of equipment after a hot work task has been completed, is easily spotted with a simple inspection.
  • The issuer should also confirm the completion of the hot work by adding a new signature to his/her copy of the permit.
  • If a permit is issued late in the day, arrangements should be made to ensure that the authorised personnel are available to sign the copy at the time of the completion of all the aforementioned measures.

One signed copy of each permit should be filed by the permit issuer for future reference.