A recent prosecution has highlighted the need for stringent health and safety management during timber frame construction, which according to the STA (Structural Timber Association) is now the fastest growing construction method in the UK. With 75% of self-builders using timber as their primary method of construction and timber increasingly becoming the material of choice for private and social housing, there is a real need within the building industry to understand the additional health and safety implications during the construction phase.
A construction company based in South Wales, claiming to specialise in building timber-framed structures, was fined £100,000, having already been served with improvement notices for fire and vehicle safety during the build of 54 timber-framed houses and flats on the site of a former primary school.
During an unannounced inspection in July 2015 the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) found the company failing to meet the fire control standards required on timber-frame projects. Workers were smoking in and around timber structures and carrying out hot work such as soldering with blowtorches. Combustible waste materials were accumulating due to a poorly managed delivery system and general lack of housekeeping. The company also failed to control the risk of workers being hit by construction vehicles which included a dump truck, tracked excavators, a large materials handler and delivery lorries.
There was neither a proper fire risk assessment nor a construction phase health and safety plan as required under the Construction (Design and Management) (CDM) Regulations 2015. There was no evidence that the site manager or contract manager and been adequately trained in fire safety.
The company pointed out that it had commissioned a Milner Report – dealing specifically with the risk of fire spread outside the site boundary – and said that it spends £150,000 a year on health and safety and adds 1.2% to its tenders to cover this expenditure.
The judge found that the culpability of the defendant in relation to fire on the site was high. He wrote: “I am sure that this was a site where the defendant fell far below the appropriate standard inasmuch that it did not put in place measures meeting recognised standard within the industry.” He said that the company had failed to enforce a site-safe smoking policy, permitted hot works in unsafe conditions and failed to implement a working housekeeping system.
“[The company failed] to implement or maintain an effective system to control the substances, processes or equipment which contractors could (or could not) use and which could increase the risk of a fire starting or the rate at which it could spread and failed to devise, implement or maintain any – or any effective – system to assess emergency arrangements in connection with fire; to provide adequate firefighting equipment, alarms or detection systems or organise a fire watch.”
He continued: “As to harm, I am sure that had a fire occurred, in the circumstances depicted, there is reason to fear that the spread of fire would have been rapid because of the proximity of combustible materials and waste, insufficient fire extinguisher points and the apparent absence of any mitigation of spread by reason of phasing construction.
“Part 5 of the Milner Report set out additional items to consider in fire spread risk mitigation on site, these included the provision of alarms; that the site would be a tidy and organised site; that site facilities provided convenient safe site smoking huts with safe and adequate disposal facilities for cigarette end and that there would be site staff escape routes.” At the time of the HSE inspection the defendant’s site did not meet these conditions.
“In particular, some escape routes were reported to be blocked or obstructed; there were no suitable and sufficient alarms and only six fire extinguisher points where there should have been 20. The Defendant did not follow the steps recommended by the expert it had itself commissioned.”
After the hearing, the HSE inspector said that the company “had been given plenty of warnings about fire safety and traffic risks in the recent past, including from the HSE. Timber-frame houses are perfectly safe once they’re finished and protected, but when under construction they can be very dangerous. Stringent fire safety standards need to be in place well before the build starts, and then maintained and monitored.”