Turning to vehicle repair workshops this month, Adair Lewis shares findings from large loss fire survey data and offers his recommendations.

IN THE RISCAuthority large fire loss statistics, vehicle repair workshops form part of the ‘non-residential miscellaneous’ category, which also includes premises such as laboratories, offices, private garages, television studios, mines and quarries.

Given the fire hazards associated with these workplaces, including fuel and oils, paint spraying, cutting, grinding and welding, it is surprising that there are so few major fi res (129 incidents in the seven year span of this survey equates to an average of just 18 a year). The news is not all bad when looking at the financial implications either, as an average loss of £378,030 per fire compares very favourably with the £939,442 average loss per incident for the miscellaneous non-residential sector as a whole.

Looking at causes, the proportions that are accidental and deliberate are similar to those for the industrial sector as a whole, but there are differences in the times of the day that the incidents occur. While the proportions that occur during the hours of darkness are very similar, there are fewer fi res in the mornings and significantly more in the afternoons. This could reflect tiredness and lack of concentration, or work being carried out hastily to meet a deadline or get it completed before the end of the day.

The problems, or impedances experienced by the fire service are perhaps predictable. There were 13 instances where access was a problem; this could result from workshops being in narrow roads, with vehicles awaiting attention or collection being parked in the roadway outside. Inadequate resources or water supplies were not problematic, but there were 34 instances (out of 37 in the whole sector) where the presence of acetylene cylinders was encountered.

Welding and cutting are necessary tasks associated with vehicle repair and can’t be totally eliminated, but there may be room for improvements in methods used and the way procedures are managed. Workshop managers should consider alternatives to oxyacetylene welding, eg argon arc or oxypropane techniques.

Even if there’s an overriding need for acetylene, there are many instances where more cylinders are on site than necessary. In most towns, gas cylinders may be ordered for delivery at short notice, which negates the need for multiple full cylinders or nominally empty ones to be stored on the premises. Those that are genuinely needed should be stored and handled as set out in RISCAuthority Recommendations RC49: Recommendations for fi re safety in the storage, handling and use of acetylene cylinders (currently being updated).

When considering the components of an insurance loss, it seems that the proportion of property damage is rather less than for miscellaneous premises as a whole, but business interruption is of much more significance (24.4% compared with 13.4% in the sector). Losses associated with machine and plant are perhaps unsurprisingly greater in the case of vehicle repair workshops.

Because of the hazardous materials that may be present in a vehicle repair workshop, an assessment in compliance with the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) should be undertaken as well as the fire risk assessment in compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 or equivalent legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Additional hazards that may be associated with vehicle repair workshops include cylinders of acetylene and other gases stored on the premises; bulk supplies of diesel fuel, petroleum and LPG; fuelling of vehicles and draining of fuel tanks during maintenance or repair; the presence of workshop pits in which flammable vapours may accumulate; bodywork spray booths or other designated areas set aside for this purpose; breaches of the fire compartmentation of the building; and combustible materials and waste (including waste oil) stored outside.

Potential sources of ignition may include:

  • hot surfaces of engines, exhaust pipes and catalytic converters
  • sparks produced as a result of welding and cutting of metal using oxyacetylene oxygen/propane, electric arc welding and other hot work processes
  • deliberate fire raising
  • lighting, heating and other equipment
  • electrical fire hazards from poorly maintained equipment and installations


Good practice

Significant findings from a fire risk assessment and DSEAR assessment should be implemented quickly and effectively. With over 27% of fires in vehicle repair workshops being started deliberately, careful consideration should be given to the possibility of deliberate fire setting and suitable measures to maintain the security of the workshop and any associated facilities when the risk assessments are undertaken.

Regarding the DSEAR assessment, it is good practice to use the VICES (ventilation, ignition, containment, exchange and separation) acronym. Identification of appropriate hazard zones should be included, followed by staff training in the implications of these in the context of the materials being handled and the operations being carried out.

Hot work should be eliminated where possible, but when it cannot, avoid the use of acetylene by using other forms of welding and cutting if practicable. A hot work permit system should control the work and the number of acetylene cylinders on site minimised. Flammable liquids should be stored in proprietary cabinets designed for this purpose – providing at least 60 minutes’ fire resistance. Avoid draining fuel tanks in the workshop, but if unavoidable, ensure the work is carefully planned and well supervised.

Provide materials to clean up fuel spillages, train staff to use them promptly and effectively and store contaminated cleaning agents outside the premises in a metal container with a metal lid.

Minimise the spread of fire by effective fire compartmentation between workshop and other areas Ensure electrical installations are designed, installed and periodically tested by a competent electrician according to the IET Wiring Regulations. Inspections should be carried out on a risk assessed basis as recommended in the Periodic Inspection Report. Portable electrical equipment should be PAT tested at least in accordance with HS(G) 107 and/or the IET Code of Practice.

Electrical equipment in hazard zones identified in the DSEAR assessment (eg lighting in workshop pits) should be appropriate for the zone. Liaise with the local fire service to ensure adequate water supplies and that parking allows adequate access for firefighting vehicles and clear access to fire hydrants at all times.

Completing the ROBUST business continuity and incident management planning software available free from https://robust.riscauthority.co.uk/ can help you prepare an emergency plan to ensure business resilience.

Adair Lewis is technical consultant at the FPA

These statistics are based on information supplied by loss adjusters to the FPA on a voluntary basis and not all insurers conducting business in the UK contribute to this dataset. They represent only sums paid out where the total loss is in excess of £100k and are deficient of losses under £100K, deductibles, underinsurance, uninsured, self-insured and captively insured components, which may be significant. In a year, total losses captured typically account for 50% of the ABI declared annual fire loss figure – which is similarly deficient of the same components (except the £100k threshold).

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