The possible involvement of welding torches in two recent large commercial fires reinforces the need for contractors, developers and building owners to make sure hot work permit and safety procedures are followed consistently.
While the source remains under investigation, a torch-related accident is suspected in a San Francisco fire that damaged an apartment complex and nearby buildings. As well, in Louisiana, a boat was destroyed by an accident attributed to a welding torch.
Welding, cutting and using a torch are to blame for about 6% of fires at industrial properties, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Errant sparks, hot slag and flames can ignite combustible and flammable items. The NFPA reports that 76% of hot work fires are the result of the close proximity of the work to materials such as wood, paper, cloth and plastic.
Before hotwork is performed, building owners and managers should ensure contractors follow these practices:
- Clear the work area of any combustibles within at minimum a 35 ft. radius and areas/floors below. The area may be greater depending upon prevailing environmental conditions (ie: wind)
- If the building uses wood framing or combustible materials that cannot be removed, work areas should be shielded with fire-resistant mats, blankets, or metal shielding.
- Any wood floors should be covered with wet sand or fire resistant mats.
- Fire extinguishers and hose reels (if water is available) should be placed near hot work.
While work is underway, a fire watch team should be observing to make sure sparks are not hitting wood or unprotected areas. A watch should be instituted after work is done and remain in place -with periodic checks- for up to 3.5 hours.
The overall responsibility for reducing hot work risks may depend on whether it is an owner/developer managed, or contractor managed project, but in most situations, the general contractor will bear primary responsibility for hot work safety while the project remains under their care, custody or control.
OSHA offers a wide range of hot work information, including and specific regulations and recommendation. NFPA 51B can also provide information on minimum requirements of a Hot Work Program.
Matt Klemmensen is a property and casualty risk engineer with Chubb Risk Engineering Services.