Risk assessments in schools are a vital part of keeping both staff and students safe. Whilst a fire in schools is unlikely, it can happen and it is incredibly important to have protocols in place that will ensure minimal damage is caused to the building and the people in it.
Carrying out a school fire risk assessment is a vital part of ensuring fire safety in an educational environment and is the responsibility of the employer. This article covers all the steps involved in carrying out a complete fire risk assessment, from common hazards in school buildings to the suggested evacuation procedures and practices.
A fire risk assessment is an incredibly important part of ensuring fire safety in a workplace or educational establishment like a school. It involves identifying all the potential fire hazards present in the environment, assessing who might be at risk and then putting protective measures in place that reduce or remove the chance of a fire occurring.
Risk assessments are required as preventative measures that spot potential risks before they become hazards that could cause serious damage to people and places. In the case of fire safety, risk assessments drastically reduce the likelihood of a fire taking place, which puts less strain on fire services, protects people’s health and reduces damage to buildings and equipment.
A school is an environment where hundreds of people spend their time, so if a fire did occur then lots of people are at risk of being harmed. It’s incredibly important to carry out a school fire risk assessment to keep pupils and staff safe and identify any potential hazards before they become a serious problem.
There are no clear cut rules that outline when a fire risk assessment is required. Instead, it is the responsibility of the school employer or designated fire safety officer to ensure that fire risk assessments are kept up to date and identify situations when a new assessment should be carried out.
Of course, if a school building is opening for the first time then a school fire risk assessment is necessary before any pupils or staff use it, as this will ensure any potential risks are spotted and dealt with before any people come into contact with them.
If there is a fire in the school, a full risk assessment must be carried out after the incident to identify what caused the problem and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Even if the fire was small and contained, the whole premises should be checked to confirm whether the same thing could occur somewhere else.
It is also recommended that fire risk assessments in schools are also carried out if there are any significant changes in the environment, such as new equipment, building work, or any refurbishment. These changes could have brought in new materials that pose a fire risk, so it is important to identify these potential hazards and assess whether they need any preventative steps taken.
In general, it is a good idea to review a school fire risk assessment every year and complete a new one every couple of years to ensure things stay up to date.
The UK government official guidance for a fire risk assessment outlines five steps that you should follow if you are carrying out an assessment in a work environment such as a school. You do not need to have any official training or qualifications in order to carry out this health and safety check, but you do need to know enough about the process and common risks to be considered ‘competent.’
If you are not competent, it is far better to employ someone else to carry out fire risk assessments in schools. In extreme circumstances, making mistakes could cost someone their life, so it is always better to go the extra mile to be on the safe side.
The first step of any fire risk assessment is to identify all the fire hazards present in the environment. A fire can start when there is fuel and a source of ignition, so you are looking for either of these.
Common sources of ignition for accidental fires in schools include heaters, electrical equipment, matches, lighting, naked flames in science labs or kitchens and any processes that use heat in design and technology facilities. Cigarettes and lighters may also be brought onto school grounds and cause a fire hazard, so these should also be factored into the risk assessment.
Common sources of fuel for fires in schools include paper, exercise and textbooks, packaging, litter and any furniture that contains wood or fabric. Elements of the building itself also have the potential to become fuel for a fire, such as hardboards on the walls and ceilings.
To prevent fires from occurring in a school, you need to keep all fuel and sources of ignition apart. Identifying where all of these are on the school premises ensures that you’re not leaving potential dangerous materials alone together and that hazard signs can be put up to reduce the risk of a fire even further.
Once you have located and identified all the potential fire hazards in the school environment, the next stage of a risk assessment is to decide who could be at risk if a fire was to start. You can do this by returning to the locations where a fire risk has been identified and then identifying which people spend time in this location.
In the case of a school fire risk assessment, students and staff are going to be at risk in the majority of instances. You will need to clarify if any groups in particular use certain spaces where a risk has been identified, such as in a staff room or a changing room.
There are some areas of a school that members of the public could be at risk in if a fire took place, particularly if the area is close to houses or commercial buildings. Visitors to the school also need to be factored into your risk assessment as potentially become victims of a fire, especially if they are visiting to work with hazardous equipment or in a high-risk space.
Once you have identified all the risks present in a school and understand who may be affected by them, the next step is to evaluate the likelihood of these risks occurring and put measures in place to either remove or reduce them. This is arguably the most important stage of completing a fire risk assessment, as it determines the health and safety procedures that will be required to keep the school safe.
Risks that are identified as the most hazardous should be at the top of your priority list. For example, if you have identified that there are sources of fuel and ignition being stored together, this must be dealt with immediately to remove the risk of a fire starting.
Where possible, the chance of a fire starting should be made as unlikely as possible by moving equipment, replacing hazardous systems or equipment, and putting systems like sprinklers in place. If this is not possible however, you should identify the steps that need to be taken to reduce the impact that a fire would have if it did start, to minimise the harm likely to be caused.
This may involve delivering fire safety training to staff who work in particularly high-risk areas of the school, installing fire extinguishers, replacing older equipment and machinery with safer models, and setting up procedures for regular safety checks of items that could pose a fire risk.
The third stage of a fire risk assessment should also involve consideration of what you are going to do to keep people in the school safe in the event of a fire. Fire alarms need to be installed and tested, evacuation plans must be drawn up and shared with those who are in charge of overseeing them, and it can be worth holding regular fire drills to practice evacuating students and staff.
Once all of the previously mentioned steps have been carried out, the next stage of a school fire risk assessment is to record everything you have identified and the procedures and safety measures that have been put in place. Keeping a copy of this risk assessment is an essential part of continued fire safety, as it means that there is a record of fire hazards, a clear plan for emergencies and a resource available for all staff to consult.
There is no official way that a fire risk assessment needs to be recorded, but it does need to be legible and understandable to anyone new who might read it when they come on school premises. It’s in your best interest to produce a clear and concise risk assessment record, as this will make things much more straightforward if a fire does take place.
The final stage of completing a school fire risk assessment is ensuring that it is regularly reviewed and updated. A risk assessment is only valid if it has taken into account all the present risks, which means that every time a new risk is added to the workplace, the risk assessment needs to be updated.
A fire risk assessment should be reviewed every year or so, and must be carried out again if a fire takes place, a new hazard is identified or if the school environment changes significantly in a way that may have brought new hazardous material or equipment onto the premises.
According to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), it is the legal responsibility of a workplace’s employer to manage the necessary health and safety checks, such as a risk assessment, on the premises. This doesn’t mean that the employer has to carry out the fire risk assessment themselves however, they are just responsible for finding someone else with the necessary experience or qualifications to do the job.
A new fire risk assessment should be carried out every couple of years to ensure that the information in it is up to date and anyone new joining the workplace has access to an accurate assessment of potential fire risks. A fire risk assessment should also be carried out if a fire occurs in the building, a staff member or student reports a concern about a potential fire hazard, or if there is a significant change in the workplace environment such as new equipment or appliances.
Whilst it is not necessary to frequently carry out a new fire risk assessment, they should be reviewed fairly regularly to make sure that they are still relevant and present an accurate assessment of the hazards and risks currently present in a school. A good benchmark is to review all school risk assessments once a year, ideally in the school holidays so that any necessary changes can be made before staff and students return to the building.
There are plenty of fire hazards in a school environment thanks to the presence of equipment used in teaching a variety of subjects. Whilst serious instances of school fires are quite rare, it is still very important to carry out regular health and safety checks to minimise the chances of this occurring and also ensure that all staff and students know what to do in the event of a fire, both of which are covered in a school fire risk assessment.
If you’d like to find out more about fire safety training and what is involved in a fire risk assessment, we offer a ‘Fire Safety for Fire Marshals and Wardens Training Package’ that is suitable for anyone who wants to learn more about preventing fires in their workplace and what to do in an emergency.