Fire, Fire! How to Avoid Roof Fires

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There is approximately one reported roof fire per month. Martin Fisher, Technical Manager at IKO, outlines safe working practices when using hot works to minimise the risk of roof fires. 

Following the heightened awareness of fires within buildings and on roofs, clients are becoming increasingly aware of the need to use materials with appropriate fire protection (covered under Part B of the Building Regulations). Questions are now being asked on whose responsibility it is to ensure buildings are safe and who should be accountable if things go wrong.

The Construction, Design and Management Regulations (2015) state that: “The person who selects products for use in construction is a designer and must take account of health and safety issues arising from their use. If a product is purpose-built, the person who prepares the specification is a designer, and so are manufacturers if they develop a detailed design.”

This means that anyone involved with writing a specification which includes hot works must at the very least assess and reduce the risk of fire, or design out the risk altogether. Ideally, this should be completed with a detailed report of the roof condition and a photographic record which should clearly highlight risk zones.

The National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC) has launched its ‘Safe2Torch’ campaign, developed in partnership with its member manufacturers and contractors to reduce the risk of roof fires. It also gives clients peace of mind that if they engage with a contractor who has signed up to the Safe2Torch campaign, their roof works will be planned and installed within the Safe2Torch guidance.

While the specification of materials and equipment is key to reducing the risk of roof fires, it is the application process and in particular the applicator, that should be scrutinised to ensure compliance with Safe2Torch guidance. Anyone using torch-on methods must be adequately trained to do so for health and safety purposes. This not only includes the applicator, but supervisors or site managers where works are taking place. Guidance states that there is a need for all persons operating with and around torch-on methods of application have a clear understanding of the risks involved and the control measure required.

The NFRC has produced a handy checklist – if a fire risk has been identified, or equally if it cannot be ruled out, the work must default to a TorchSafe™ solution. The checklist includes items such as timber products; plastic fascias; soffits; a roof adjoining a pitched roof; cladding; thatched roof; window sills and frames; and existing weathering components with concealed flammable materials.

A torch-free exclusion zone must also be created of at least 900mm from all areas deemed to be at risk, either due to containing combustible components or being adjacent to roof details where there is a risk of fire due to debris on the existing roof structure of other flammable hazards.

Only once fire risks have been fully assessed and where necessary, mitigated, can hot works begin. When using a torch-on method, it is vital that propane cylinders are stored in the upright position at all times and placed in a lockable cage, away from the workplace, when not in use.

Propane gas hoses should be orange in colour and of a suitable length for the project – using an industry approved, CE marked, hose is the best way to meet this requirement. If the hose is being used for heating bitumen, it must be armoured for additional protection against fire.

Hoses should be thoroughly inspected before every use and be free from any tears, burns, fraying or cuts. A damaged hose must be replaced before any hot works can begin.

After the gas torch has been attached to the gas cylinder, you should check for any leakages using a detergent solution. If a leak is identified, the faulty component must be repaired or replaced before proceeding – do not attempt to fix any leaks using excessive force, sealing tape or similar jointing material. Furthermore, all gas torches should be fitted with a stand to ensure that the flame is directed away from the roof at all times.

Where possible, try to use torches which self-ignite and extinguish using an electronic system as these are both safer and more environmentally friendly than gas torches which rely on a pilot light. An appropriate fire extinguisher (water, dry-powder, foam or CO2) with an in-date service record should also be within easy reach at all times.

Following these steps should ensure a new or refurbished roof is installed safely. However, a significant amount of roof fires occur when newly installed roof decking is being dried out prior to the application of a waterproofing system. The most popular method of drying out a roof is still through using a gas torch – this means that the same care and precautions must be taken at this stage as with as any other. Where a fire risk has been identified, a gas torch should not be used within 900mm and a flame-free solution should be employed instead.

Gas torches can be a very effective tool, but like any tool, they must be used safely. Following the NFRC’s ‘Safe2Torch’ guidance is an excellent way to eliminate the risk of roof fires as far as possible. Contractors need not avoid using torch-on products altogether, but they do need to take appropriate steps to ensure they are working safely.