Conducting Scene Risk Assessments for Structural Fires Investigations

Mike Wisekal

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13 Nov 2023

Fire investigators attend and examine fire scenes in all types of structures, including commercial, manufacturing , and residential buildings of various designs. Structures may involve complex industrial machinery, the accommodation of ships or other factors that increase the risk of injury or fatality. Because a fire scene presents a wide range of potential structural hazards, personal safety must be regarded as a priority in all fire investigations.

Scene Risk Assessments are Crucial to Safety

Legislation in the UK and Ireland requires the undertaking of risk assessments in the workplace. The following are some essential regulations:

  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (UK), Regulation 3(1) Employers required to make sufficient and suitable risk assessment.
  • Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (UK), Section 19(1): Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment.
  • European Council Directive 89/391/EEC, Article 6(1): General Obligations on Employers and Article 13(1): Workers Obligations.

It is essential that fire investigators complete scene risk assessments to assess structurally related hazards and risks and ensure they are managed appropriately. When undertaking a scene risk assessment, investigators bear in mind three key elements: hazards, risks, and control measures.

Undertaking a Scene Risk Assessment

Assess and Manage Hazards. Structures involved in fire will often be subject to physical changes as a result of the fire. These changes generally create hazards that a fire investigator must assess and manage to undertake the fire scene examination safely. General hazards likely to be encountered in structural fires may include:

  • Structural collapse/stability issues
  • Loose debris falling from above
  • Holes in floors
  • Hazardous materials
  • Exposed electrical services
  • Damaged natural gas or oil services
  • Sharps, such as glass, nails or torn materials

Moreover, structural fires can introduce additional hazards, such as biological contaminants, chemicals, confined spaces, slips, trips and falls, respiratory hazards, and working at heights.

Identify and Mitigate Risks. Fire investigators work in inherently hazardous and risky environments, with each fire scene containing its own unique structural hazards and risks. For example:

  • Structural collapse/stability hazards pose a risk of collapse, potentially resulting in a fatal or crushing injury that may lead to the death and/or entrapment of an investigator.
  • Holes in a floor pose a risk of an investigator falling through the floor. When standing below, there is a risk of debris falling onto an investigator, potentially resulting in a fatal or serious injury to the investigator or others who might enter.
  • Sharp hazards in the form of broken window glass, discarded needles, or torn pieces of metal or structure can pose a laceration risk to anyone entering.

To mitigate any type of risk, the likelihood of the hazardous event happening must be reduced as well as the consequence of the hazardous event.

Implement Control Measures. Controlling risk involves implementing changes that will minimise risk. One suitable method of control investigators can adopt to reduce risk potential is limiting access. For example:

In the case of structural stability hazards posing risk of collapse, the investigator should avoid the unstable area of the structure until the area is made safe. Barrier tape or fencing could be erected, putting distance between people and the hazard. A structural engineer may be required to fully assess the safety of the building before safe investigations can commence. Controlled demolitions to progress the investigation may be necessary.

For holes in the floor that create risk for fall or falling debris, a suitable control measure would be to avoid this area and/or minimise the imposed weight put on the structure in the area of concern. Excessive weight on a fire damaged floor may result in the collapse of the floor.

If access is required, wearing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) will reduce the risk of injury (e.g., hard hat, safety glasses, appropriately rated debris gloves). PPE is often considered the last line of defence against hazards. Due to the nature of structural hazards and the environment that fire investigators work in, it is recognized that PPE does not remove the risk.

Controlling structural hazards can also require the introduction of a safe system of work unique to the fire scene circumstances. This is typically by form of a method statement or a Safe Operating Procedure (SOP), which sets out how the task will be undertaken in a safe manner.

Personal Safety is a Priority

Jensen Hughes recognises the need to effectively assess and manage structural fire scene examinations. Consequently, all Jensen Hughes investigators are trained in completing scene risk assessments. This ensures hazards and risks are managed appropriately, thereby protecting

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About the author

Mike Wisekal
Mike has been in fire industry since 1997, serving nearly 18 years in the Fire Service.