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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.

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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.




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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.

2017 Teddy Awards

The Era of Engagement

The very best workers’ compensation programs are the ones where workers aren’t just the subject of the program, they’re a part of it.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 5 min read

Employee engagement, employee advocacy, employee participation — these are common threads running through the programs we honor this year in the 2017 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Awards, sponsored by PMA Companies.

A panel of judges — including workers’ comp executives who actively engage their own employees — selected this year’s winners on the basis of performance, sustainability, innovation and teamwork. The winners hail from different industries and regions, but all make people part of the solution to unique challenges.

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Valley Health System is all-too keenly aware of the risk of violence in health care settings, running the gamut from disruptive patients to grieving, overwrought family members to mentally unstable active shooters.

Valley Health employs a proactive and comprehensive plan to respond to violent scenarios, involving its Code Atlas Team — 50 members of the clinical staff and security departments who undergo specialized training. Valley Health drills regularly, including intense annual active shooter drills that involve participation from local law enforcement.

The drills are unnerving for many, but the program is making a difference — the health system cut its workplace violence injuries in half in the course of just one year.

“We’re looking at patient safety and employee safety like never before,” said Barbara Schultz, director of employee health and wellness.

At Rochester Regional Health’s five hospitals and six long-term care facilities, a key loss driver was slips and falls. The system’s mandatory safety shoe program saw only moderate take-up, but the reason wasn’t clear.

Rather than force managers to write up non-compliant employees, senior manager of workers’ compensation and employee safety Monica Manske got proactive, using a survey as well as one-on-one communication to suss out the obstacles. After making changes based on the feedback, shoe compliance shot up from 35 percent to 85 percent, contributing to a 42 percent reduction in lost-time claims and a 46 percent reduction in injuries.

For the shoe program, as well as every RRH safety initiative, Manske’s team takes the same approach: engaging employees to teach and encourage safe behaviors rather than punishing them for lapses.

For some of this year’s Teddy winners, success was born of the company’s willingness to make dramatic program changes.

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Delta Air Lines made two ambitious program changes since 2013. First it adopted an employee advocacy model for its disability and leave of absence programs. After tasting success, the company transitioned all lines including workers’ compensation to an integrated absence management program bundled under a single TPA.

While skeptics assume “employee advocacy” means more claims and higher costs, Delta answers with a reality that’s quite the opposite. A year after the transition, Delta reduced open claims from 3,479 to 1,367, with its total incurred amount decreased by $50.1 million — head and shoulders above its projected goals.

For the Massachusetts Port Authority, change meant ending the era of having a self-administered program and partnering with a TPA. It also meant switching from a guaranteed cost program to a self-insured program for a significant segment of its workforce.

Massport’s results make a great argument for embracing change: The organization saved $21 million over the past six years. Freeing up resources allowed Massport to increase focus on safety as well as medical management and chopped its medical costs per claim in half — even while allowing employees to choose their own health care providers.

Risk & Insurance® congratulates the 2017 Teddy Award winners and holds them in high esteem for their tireless commitment to a safe workforce that’s fully engaged in its own care. &

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More coverage of the 2017 Teddy Award Winners and Honorable Mentions:

Advocacy Takes Off: At Delta Air Lines, putting employees first is the right thing to do, for employees and employer alike.

 

Proactive Approach to Employee SafetyThe Valley Health System shifted its philosophy on workers’ compensation, putting employee and patient safety at the forefront.

 

Getting It Right: Better coordination of workers’ compensation risk management spelled success for the Massachusetts Port Authority.

 

Carrots: Not SticksAt Rochester Regional Health, the workers’ comp and safety team champion employee engagement and positive reinforcement.

 

Fit for Duty: Recognizing parallels between athletes and public safety officials, the city of Denver made tailored fitness training part of its safety plan.

 

Triage, Transparency and TeamworkWhen the City of Surprise, Ariz. got proactive about reining in its claims, it also took steps to get employees engaged in making things better for everyone.

A Lesson in Leadership: Shared responsibility, data analysis and a commitment to employees are the hallmarks of Benco Dental’s workers’ comp program.

 

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]