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Holistic Site Security Douses Wood-Framed Fire Risk

Several trends in the construction industry are feeding the rise of wood-framed construction – and construction fires.
By: | November 7, 2017 • 6 min read

Over a July weekend in 2017, five buildings in a Waltham, Mass., apartment complex burned to the ground. This only a month after another blaze took down an expansive but unoccupied building in nearby Dorchester. In both cases, local firefighters spent more than 24 hours getting the flames under control and extinguishing hot spots.

Both buildings were still under construction, and both were consumed by fire so quickly because their bones were not made of the steel beams that traditionally hold up large structures — but of wood.

The vulnerability of wood frame construction to a fast-spreading fire (during the stage of construction when framing is exposed) first garnered attention in 2012, when a multi-story senior center in Oakland, Calif., was incinerated down to its first floor, which was made of concrete.

“Since then we have seen increasing frequency of these fires as wood framing becomes more common for large buildings,” said Peter Wilcox, Inland Marine Director for Travelers, specializing in construction and renewable energy.

Several trends in the construction industry are feeding the rise of wood-framed construction – and construction fires.  This presents a worker safety risk as well as property risk. Project owners/developers can help protect themselves on all fronts by incorporating fire prevention protocols into a holistic risk-management approach that considers both worker safety and property exposures.

Industry Trends: Materials and Labor

Peter Wilcox, Inland Marine Director

Wood has always been the primary building material for smaller residential structures, but multi-story apartments, big commercial buildings and mixed-use spaces traditionally relied on steel framing.

“More builders are using wood framing today because wood is less expensive per square foot, easily obtained from the local lumber yard, and much easier to work with. You can usually make changes to the design, such as changing a window opening, relatively easily. And that means that buildings get done faster as well,” Wilcox said.

Faster timelines mean contractors can take on more projects.

Tight schedules and heavy workloads heighten safety risk on their own, but the continuing skilled-labor shortage in construction compounds the exposure.

“A lot of experienced tradesman left the profession during the recession in 2008,” Wilcox said. “As work picks up again, the growing labor pool may be less experienced with fire safety and prevention than in the past. This includes site supervisors as well as laborers.”

The industry has focused its energy on aspects of worker safety, including ergonomics, proper handling of equipment and slip and fall prevention – but the risk of fire remains an important and potentially overlooked risk.

“Clearly fire safety is an important worker safety issue as well.” Wilcox said. “Having fire extinguishers on-site is a start. But to be well prepared for a fire, it is best to address fire risk as part of a holistic site protection plan.”

A Holistic Approach to Site Security

Addressing fire safety begins with identifying potential sources of ignition, and then putting controls in place to manage them.

Hot-work activities present the most obvious source of construction fires. Soldering, welding or cutting metal, brazing refrigerant lines for A/C units or torch-applied roofing all send sparks flying. But these aren’t the only culprits. A commonly overlooked source is on-site cooking.

“The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that cooking is a prevalent cause of fires on construction sites,” Wilcox said. “Once the building gets weather tight, the workers want a break room, a place for coffee pots, microwaves and hot plates. Some job sites bring in gas grills for Friday afternoon cookouts. But people forget what they’ve left on the cooktop.”

Other ignition sources include smoking, temporary heat, and arson.

“These are all things our risk control consultants are looking for on a job site, and identifying these risks is where we begin to build a fire prevention plan,” Wilcox said.

There are some common concepts or tenets in fire prevention plans. The primary tenet of a fire prevention plan is good housekeeping.

“Good housekeeping is close to godliness,” Wilcox said. “If we have a clean site, we’ll have a safe and productive site. Eliminating scrap piles and wood shavings gets rid of those small materials that can really get a fire going.”

The second tenet is training and supervision, especially when less-experienced workers are conducting hot-work activities. In addition to learning how to safely execute these tasks, workers also need proper response training for when something goes awry.

Wilcox cited one incident that happened early in his career, where plumbers were soldering fittings to a pipe protruding from the finished drywall. They noticed that smoke was coming out from the wall opening and they had repeatedly used fire extinguishers to put out the flames sparked by their work. They left for the day when they finished their work, not knowing that the fire has spread deep inside the wall cavity. The entire project ended up in smoke.

“They never bothered to tell anyone they had discharged their extinguisher. A supervisor should have been informed, and the fire department should have been called to come out and make sure the flames didn’t spread,” Wilcox said. “It’s a lot cheaper to remove a section of drywall and check for fire than to rebuild an entire structure.”

In fact, it is best to involve the local fire department as an active participant in a fire prevention plan from the start, Wilcox said. Site supervisors can ask them to do walk-throughs, identify potential hazards and recommend solutions.

A third tenet is having the right equipment on hand and ready to go. Fire extinguishers are a no-brainer, but many sites don’t turn on sprinkler systems until the building is complete, for fear of extensive water damage.

“A fire does a lot more damage than water. There are some communities now trying to get their fire departments to allow builders to activate sprinkler systems earlier in the project, even though current building codes don’t require it,” Wilcox said. “Having sprinkler systems activated can eliminate or reduce the spread of fire during construction which can minimize project delays and keep employees and surrounding areas safer.”

Finally, a fire prevention plan should be part of a wider site security initiative that includes surveillance and security guards who are also trained to identify potential ignition sources and other construction site hazards. “Guards are not only there for security and theft prevention; they look out for the safety of the building overnight,” Wilcox said.

Risk Control Expertise

Travelers can provide resources and information to help develop fire prevention plans, including, written guidelines, safety bulletins and site security checklists. Risk control consultants also conduct site visits and can offer recommendations to help manage potential fire risks.

“With wood-frame construction, we can visit the site when framing starts, and then go out two or three more times as it progresses. Our consultants can provide detailed reports of their observations and recommend some ways the site can improve its security and fire safety,” Wilcox said.

“Many of our recommendations and resources to clients are based on NFPA standards, such as NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations. This standard addresses common sources of fires like hot-work activities, but also discusses overall site security. It’s a comprehensive set of best practices to prevent fire.”

And because wood framing seems here to stay, it’s a standard worth implementing ASAP.

To learn more, visit https://www.travelers.com/resources/business-industries/construction/protecting-your-construction-site-from-fire-water-and-theft.aspx.



This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Travelers. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.


The Travelers Companies, Inc. (NYSE: TRV) is a leading provider of property casualty insurance for auto, home and business. A component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Travelers has approximately 30,000 employees and generated revenues of approximately $28 billion in 2016. For more information, visit www.travelers.com.

Risk Report: Marine

Crewless Ships Raise Questions

Is a remote operator legally a master? New technology confounds old terms.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 6 min read

For many developers, the accelerating development of remote-controlled and autonomous ships represents what could be the dawn of a new era. For underwriters and brokers, however, such vessels could represent the end of thousands of years of maritime law and risk management.

Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk

While crewless vessels have yet to breach commercial service, there are active testing programs. Most brokers and underwriters expect small-scale commercial operations to be feasible in a few years, but that outlook only considers technical feasibility. How such operations will be insured remains unclear.

“I have been giving this a great deal of thought, this sits on my desk every day,” said Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk, a major UK underwriter. Johnson sits on the loss-prevention committee of the International Union of Maritime Insurers.

“The agreed uncertainty that underpins marine insurance is falling away, but we are pretending that it isn’t. The contractual framework is being made less relevant all the time.”

Defining Autonomous Vessels

Two types of crewless vessels are being contemplated. First up is a drone with no one on board but actively controlled by a human at a remote command post on land or even on another vessel.

While some debate whether the controllers of drone aircrafts are pilots or operators, the very real question yet to be addressed is if a vessel controller is legally a “master” under maritime law.


The other type of crewless vessel would be completely autonomous, with the onboard systems making decisions about navigation, weather and operations.

Advocates tout the benefits of larger cargo capacity without crew spaces, including radically different hull designs without decks people can walk on. Doubters note a crew can fix things at sea while a ship cannot.

Rolls-Royce is one of the major proponents and designers. The company tested a remote-controlled tug in Copenhagen in June 2017.

“We think the initial early adopters will be vessels operating on fixed routes within coastal waters under the jurisdiction of flag states,” the company said.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.”

Once autonomous ships are a reality, “the entire current legal framework for maritime law and insurance is done,” said Johnson. “The master has not been replaced; he is just gone. Commodity ships (bulk carriers) would be most amenable to that technology. I’m not overly bothered by fully automated ships, but I am extremely bothered by heavily automated ones.”

He cited two risks specifically: hacking and fire.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.” — Rolls-Royce Holdings study

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, asked an even more existential question: “From an insurance standpoint, are we even still talking about a vessel as it is under law? Starting with the legal framework, the duty of a flag state is ‘manning of ships.’ What about the duty to render assistance? There cannot be insurance coverage of an illegal contract.”

Several sources noted that the technological development of crewless ships, while impressive, seems to be a solution in search of a problem. There is no known need in the market; no shippers, operators, owners or mariners advocate that crewless ships will solve their problems.

Kinsey takes umbrage at the suggestion that promotional material on crewless vessels cherry picks his company’s data, which found 75 percent to 90 percent of marine losses are caused by human error.


“Removing the humans from the vessels does not eliminate the human error. It just moves the human error from the helm to the coder. The reports on development by the companies with a vested interest [in crewless vessels] tend to read a lot like advertisements. The pressure for this is not coming from the end users.”

To be sure, Kinsey is a proponent of automation and technology when applied prudently, believing automation can make strides in areas of the supply chains. Much of the talk about automation is trying to bury the serious shortage of qualified crews. It also overshadows the very real potential for blockchain technology to overhaul the backend of marine insurance.

As a marine surveyor, Kinsey said he can go down to the wharf, inspect cranes, vessels and securements, and supervise loading and unloading — but he can’t inspect computer code or cyber security.

New Times, New Risks

In all fairness, insurance language has changed since the 17th century, especially as technology races ahead in the 21st.

“If you read any hull form, it’s practically Shakespearean,” said Stephen J. Harris, senior vice president of marine protection UK, Marsh. “The language is no longer fit for purpose. Our concern specifically to this topic is that the antiquated language talks about crew being on board. If they are not on board, do they still legally count as crew?”

Harris further questioned, “Under hull insurance, and provided that the ship owner has acted diligently, cover is extended to negligence of the master or crew. Does that still apply if the captain is not on board but sitting at a desk in an office?”

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Several sources noted that a few international organizations, notably the Comite Maritime International and the International Maritime Organization, “have been very active in asking the legal profession around the world about their thoughts. The interpretations vary greatly. The legal complications of crewless vessels are actually more complicated than the technology.”

For example, if the operational, insurance and regulatory entities in two countries agree on the voyage of a crewless vessel across the ocean, a mishap or storm could drive the vessel into port or on shore of a third country that does not recognize those agreements.

“What worries insurers is legal uncertainty,” said Harris.

“If an operator did everything fine but a system went down, then most likely the designer would be responsible. But even if a designer explicitly accepted responsibility, what matters would be the flag state’s law in international waters and the local state’s law in territorial waters.


“We see the way ahead for this technology as local and short-sea operations. The law has to catch up with the technology, and it is showing no signs of doing so.”

Thomas M. Boudreau, head of specialty insurance, The Hartford, suggested that remote ferry operations could be the most appropriate use: “They travel fixed routes, all within one country’s waters.”

There could also be environmental and operational benefits from using battery power rather than conventional fuels.

“In terms of underwriting, the burden would shift to the manufacturer and designer of the operating systems,” Boudreau added.

It may just be, he suggested, that crewless ships are merely replacing old risks with new ones. Crews can deal with small repairs, fires or leaks at sea, but small conditions such as those can go unchecked and endanger the whole ship and cargo.

“The cyber risk is also concerning. The vessel may be safe from physical piracy, but what about hacking?” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]