Q & A: How to mitigate fire risks through planning?

Tom Baines, head of HSEQ at Arcadis, talks about releasing the third book in his series on Safety Design, and how planning can help mitigate fire risks.

Tom Baines, head of HSEQ at Arcadis.
Tom Baines, head of HSEQ at Arcadis.

Tell us about the new book
 The new book is particularly focusing on safety design for tall buildings where the risks are significantly greater and require a lot more planning as you get above 30 floors.
 When constructing skyscrapers one can use the analogy of war, from the logistics of materials to managing the movement of large numbers of people. You have to be ready to always think out of the box and improvise. When we talk about high-rise buildings, there is a lot of complexity. If there’s a fire on the 50th floor, what do you do if you don’t have water supply?
What makes Arcadis stand out when it comes to safety and fire safety?
 We like to be innovative and be dynamic. That is how we look at risk management, in contrast to how companies often look more at the basic stuff. But it’s not the basic stuff that kills. It is more the high-level and overarching approach to safety that will make a difference. That is what these books are about, to clarify what the points of key focus are. We use control risks to monitor what goes on in the region with consistent updates and how it impacts the security perspective.
 As for fire, everything has a fire safety aspect to it. Every piece of equipment could be a fire risk. I have seen formwork platforms go up in flames. You need good planning and design for formworks. Companies like Doka will design the formwork specifically for a project adapted to the core and there are systems and functions in place. Safety is only as good as the safety routines of the contractor. The importance of housekeeping routines to keep the site clean cannot be underestimated.
What do you see as the key priorities when it comes to mitigating fire risks in the construction phase?
 Again, the key priority is planning. You can’t just pick on one area of the planning stages. Projects often move very quickly after the contract is signed. I worked for a fire engineering company before and I suggested installing the permanent fire system with pumps and fire tanks installed at an early stage to get better fire protection. Also, you won’t have to put it in later. But a lot of contractors are scared of the fact that it comes in under the liability period and chooses to put in a temporary system instead of thinking that there is less risk of water damage without pressurised water. When you talk about putting fire protection measures in the building, you are going to have to spend that money down the line anyway.
 Another part of proper planning is, for instance, the temporary electrics, one of the biggest causes of fire because the installations can often be quite poor. You need right management around it with the right checks and maintenance processes. And you look at housekeeping where you have all these temporary storage areas with chemicals and with temporary electrics it only takes one spark to start a fire.
It’s from the simple things like from emergency lighting to supplying the contractors for heavier tools they use for grinding, drilling, and welding. It’s not that it is all badly installed, but when you do it, you have to plan the network, like putting power into the floors so that tools can be used throughout the site without improvised solutions being needed.

What are you working on now?
 As a consultancy, we manage the HSE at the projects we have. How we are structured makes a difference and that we are a large company. We have very strict guidelines when it comes to health and safety, where if we see something that can harm someone we will immediately stop the work on site and even the entire project. We have done that in the past, and it has caused a little bit of the stir. But we sat down with the client and the contractor and got it right with the safety precautions.
What are the main challenges you see?
 There are many challenges. It’s all in the preparation. It’s about getting the basics right, or you will fail and always be playing catch-up to comply with health and safety regulations. And there is a cultural difference between being a global Western company with 55 nationalities. That influences how we communicate. We use simplicity and avoid large words that can confuse. We use data to closely monitor projects we are involved.
 Key to better safety is simplicity. There are major differences in risk perceptions between cultures. When you communicate and write something, it has to be understood and reach everyone. We keep it visual so that they can relate to the content and it sticks in their mind. We have a lot of campaigns that grab people’s attention and draw them in.
What do you see as the strengths of the Gulf region when it comes to safety?
 You go to the UK, and you go through multiple stages to get something into law whereas in the Middle East they learn more quickly and adapt. When I first came here ten years ago, I have seen how pragmatic the industry is and how they embrace new technologies like nowhere else in the world.

Tom Baines will be speaking at the Safety Design in Buildings conference in Abu Dhabi on 11 December 2018.

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