The Five Steps of Fire Risk Assessment

The Five Step Method of Fire Risk Assessment

A fire risk assessment is a systematic and critical evaluation of a premises and the activities carried on there for the purpose of determining the likelihood of a fire occurring and causing harm to people in and around the premises.

The purpose of a fire risk assessment is to determine what action you need to take to prevent a fire from occurring in your premises and equally to determine what action you need to take to ensure the safety of people in and around your premises if a fire does occur. Therefore, the fire risk assessment should:
  1. Identify all of the fire hazards in your premises.
  2. Identify all of the people at risk.
  3. Evaluate means of removing the hazards or of reducing the risks to an acceptable level if the hazards cannot be removed.
Irish fire safety law doesn't codify the fire risk assessment process beyond implicitly incorporating it into a general duty of care in Section 18 (2) of the Fire Services Acts, 1981 & 2003 (as amended). It is left to responsible persons to choose a method of fire risk assessment that is appropriate for the purposes of complying with the duty.

A dedicated fire risk assessment should not be confused with the occupational risk assessment required by the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and enforced by the HSA. An occupational risk assessment covers fire risk assessment only in the context of safety and health in the workplace (typically process and storage risks) and is not aimed at discharging the duty under Section 18 (2) of a separate piece of legislation where responsibility for enforcement resides with the local fire authority and not with the HSA.

If you don't have the time to do your own fire risk assessment or would like to have it done professionally, Firesure can do it for you. Click here for details.

The Five Steps of Fire Risk Assessment

The Five Steps of Fire Risk Assessment The Five Steps method of fire risk assessment can be undertaken by a competent person with a good understanding of the fire safety principles and practices involved and is adequate for most small and medium-sized businesses in Ireland.

The fire safety principle that underpins this method of fire risk assessment is very simple (the Fire Triangle theory of fire) and the logic is even more so (remove, reduce, separate, control).

The method can be used to divide larger workplaces into sections and to provide a separate fire risk assessment for each section (e.g. canteen, offices, warehouse, showroom, yard, production area, etc) or, for smaller workplaces such as a shop or an office, to assess it as a whole.

An average risk factor is calculated for each area where an assessment is undertaken and a risk rating is then calculated for that area. Once the hazards and risks in the premises have been identified, further action is taken to either remove the risks completely or, it not possible, to reduce them to an acceptable level. Without this subsequent action, a fire risk assessment is a meaningless exercise.

Step 1 of 5: Identify the fire hazards
Step 2 of 5: Identify the people at risk
Step 3 of 5: Evaluate the hazards and risks
Step 4 of 5: Record your findings
Step 5 of 5: Review and revise

Step 1 of 5: Identify the fire hazards

Fire Triangle The first step of a fire risk assessment is to identify all of the fire hazards in your premises.

Three elements must be present for a fire to occur: fuel, a source of ignition (heat), and an oxidizing agent (usually oxygen). A fire can be prevented by keeping one or more of these three elements separate from each other. At its most basic level, fire safety is the practice of keeping sources of fuel away from sources of ignition.

Since these three elements must be present for a fire to occur and since fire safety is the practice of keeping them apart, you need to examine your premises to see where these elements are in proximity to each other and how you can keep them apart.

The next step is to identify all sources of fuel in your premises. Fuel is any substance that can undergo combustion. It exists in three states of matter: solids, liquids and gases. Potential sources of fuel include:
  1. Flammable liquids and solvents such as petrol, white spirit, methylated spirit and paraffin
  2. Flammable chemicals
  3. Wood
  4. Paper and card
  5. Plastics, rubber and foam such as polystyrene and polyurethane (e.g. the foam used in upholstered furniture)
  6. Flammable gases such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and acetylene
  7. Furniture, including fixtures and fittings
  8. Textiles
  9. Hardboard, chipboard, blockboard walls or ceilings
  10. Synthetic ceiling or wall coverings, such as polystyrene tiles
  11. Loose packaging materials
  12. Waste materials, in particular finely divided materials such as wood shavings, off-cuts, dust, paper and textiles.
The next step is to identify all sources of ignition in your premises. Potential sources of ignition include:
  1. Naked flames
  2. Electrical, gas or oil-fired heaters (fixed or portable);
  3. Hot work processes (e.g. welding, grinding, shrink-wrapping, cooking)
  4. Electrical installations and wiring
  5. Engines or boilers
  6. Machinery
  7. Faulty or misused electrical equipment
  8. Lighting equipment (e.g. halogen lamps)
  9. Hot surfaces and obstruction of equipment ventilation (e.g. office equipment)
  10. Friction (e.g. from loose bearings or drive belts)
  11. Static electricity
  12. Metal impact (such as metal tools striking each other)
  13. Arson
Potential sources of oxygen include:·
  1. Natural airflow through doors, windows and other openings
  2. Mechanical air conditioning systems and air handling systems
  3. Oxidizing materials
  4. Oxygen supplies from cylinder storage and piped systems (e.g. oxygen used in welding processes or for health care purposes)
Structural features that would constitute hazards by promoting the rapid spread of fire should also be identified. These would include such things as ducts and flues, unstopped holes that have been cut into fire resisting walls for the provision of services such as cables and pipe work, large areas of hardboard, chipboard, or blockboard, uncompartmented roof spaces. Excessively long escape routes and dead end conditions that would prejudice the means of escape should also be identified.

Step 2 of 5: Identify the people at risk

The second step of fire risk assessment is to identify the people who would be at risk if a fire occurs in your premises, e.g. employees, customers, contractors, visitors, etc.

Particular consideration should be given to people in the vicinity of fire hazards and people who work alone or in isolated areas, and to vulnerable people such as the elderly, children, and the disabled.

In addition to considering people in your premises, consider people not on your premises who might also be at risk (e.g. neighbours, pedestrians, motorists, etc) and the ways in which they could be at risk (e.g. falling masonry, flames, explosion, etc).

Step 3 of 5: Evaluate the hazards and risks

The third step of fire risk assessment is to evaluate the findings of steps 1 and 2. You must assess the effects of the hazards on the people at risk, taking any existing control measures into account. You must then decide if any further control measures are needed to eliminate the risk or reduce it to an acceptable level.

The greatest danger to people from fire is the spread of the flames, heat and smoke through the premises. The imperative is to ensure that all people identified to be at risk can escape quickly from the danger to a place of safety should a fire occur despite your efforts to prevent it. It is essential therefore to ensure that a premises has adequate means of detecting fire and raising the alarm, and has adequate means of escape. You need also to ensure that there is adequate provision of fire-fighting equipment for persons in the premises to use, without exposing themselves to danger, to extinguish a fire in its early stages or to assist in emergency evacuation.

The focus of step 3 is therefore on removing the identified hazard and, if it cannot be removed, reducing the risk to an acceptable level. All risks will be assessed using a Risk Value or Risk Factor (depending on the matrix used) and any risks that cannot be immediately eliminated will be assigned a risk category of Low, Normal or High so that they can be prioritised according to the degree of risk that they present.

Measures to protect people from fire include the following categories:
  1. Fire detection and alarm systems
  2. Fire-fighting equipment
  3. Escape routes and exits
  4. Fire safety management systems
  5. Emergency lighting
  6. Emergency planning and evacuation procedures
  7. Staff training
  8. Compartmentation (e.g. fire resisting walls, glazing and doors, etc)
  9. Signs and notices
  10. Good housekeeping
  11. Maintenance
  12. Relevant legal requirements
Possible ways to reduce sources of fuel include:
  1. Removing flammable materials and substances, or reducing them to the minimum required for the operation of the premises
  2. Replacing materials and substances with less flammable alternatives
  3. Ensuring flammable materials, liquids (and vapours) and gases are handled, transported, stored and used properly
  4. Ensuring adequate separation distances between flammable materials
  5. Storing highly flammable substances in fire-resisting stores and, where necessary, keeping a minimum quantity in fire-resisting cabinets within the premises
  6. Removing, covering or treating large areas of flammable wall and ceiling linings to reduce the rate of flame spread across the surface
  7. Replacing or repairing furniture with damaged upholstery where the foam filling is exposed
  8. Ensuring that flammable waste materials and rubbish are not allowed to build up and are carefully stored until properly disposed of
  9. Taking action to avoid storage areas being vulnerable to arson or vandalism
  10. Ensuring good housekeeping
  11. Improving the fire resistance of the construction of the workplace
Possible ways to reduce sources of ignition include:
  1. Removing unnecessary sources of heat from the premises or replacing them with safer alternatives
  2. Ensuring that heat producing equipment is used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and is properly maintained
  3. Installing machinery and equipment which has been designed to minimise the risk of fire and explosions
  4. Replacing naked flame and radiant heaters with fixed convector heaters or a central heating system
  5. Ensuring that all electrical fuses and circuit breakers etc., are of the correct rating and suitable for the purpose
  6. Ensuring that sources of heat do not arise from faulty or overloaded electrical or mechanical equipment (such as overheating bearings)
  7. Keeping ducts and flues clean
  8. Where appropriate, operating a permit to work system for maintenance workers and contractors who carry out 'hot work' involving processes such as welding or flame cutting
  9. Operating a safe smoking policy in designated smoking areas and prohibiting smoking elsewhere
  10. Enforcing the prohibition of matches and lighters and other naked flames in high fire risk areas
  11. Ensuring that all equipment that could provide a source of ignition, even when not in use, is left in safe condition
  12. Making sure that any smouldering material including smokers material, is properly extinguished before leaving the workplace
  13. Taking precautions to avoid the risk of arson
Possible ways to reduce sources of oxygen include:
  1. Closing all doors, windows and other openings not required for ventilation, particularly when the premises are not in use
  2. Shutting down ventilation systems which are not essential to the function of the premises
  3. Not storing oxidising materials near or with any heat source or flammable materials
  4. Controlling the use and storage of oxygen cylinders

Step 4 of 5: Record your findings

The fourth step of fire risk assessment is to record your significant findings.

The record must show whether the existing control measures are adequate or, if they are inadequate, what additional or amended control measures you are taking to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. It is not necessary to record findings that are trivial but all significant findings should be recorded with the risks graded as High, Medium or Low. Clearly, the higher risks should be prioritised.

Your emergency plan should be based on the outcome of your fire risk assessment. You need an emergency plan for dealing with any fire situation to ensure that the people in your premises know what to do if there is a fire and that the premises can be safely evacuated. In small offices and shops the emergency plan may be no more than a fire action notice. For more complex premises, a location plan showing fire exits, escape routes, fire-fighting equipment, call points, fireman's switch, etc, could be used.

The fire safety information and instruction that you give to persons at risk in your premises should be based on your emergency plan, which is in turn based on your fire risk assessment. Records should also detail any special duties or responsibilities assigned to staff in carrying out the plan along with details of instruction and training provided to enable them to safety and efficiently carry out those duties. Personal Emergency Egress Plans (PEEPs), if applicable, should be included.

Step 5 of 5: Review and revise

The final step of fire risk assessment is reviewing and revising it.

Fire risk assessment is a continuous process which requires that existing control measures should be monitored and audited to make sure they are still working effectively.

Changes may occur in the premises which have an effect on your fire risks and precautions such as alterations to the premises, a fire, purchase of new equipment. If there is a significant change, you will need to review your assessment in the light of the new risk or hazard.

If a fire or ‘near miss’ occurs, then your existing assessment may be out of date or inadequate and you should reassess. It is a good idea to identify the cause of any incident and then review your fire risk assessment in light of this.

This doesn't mean that you must undertake the renew assessment every time a change occurs but it does mean that the change must be assessed. It is also important to review and revise your assessment regularly.

Fire Risk Assessment Checklist

Fire detection and warning

  1. Can the existing means of detection discover a fire quickly enough to raise an alarm in time for all the occupants to escape to a safe place?
  2. Can the means for giving warning be clearly heard and understood throughout the whole premises when initiated from any single point?
  3. If the fire detection and warning system is electrically powered, does it have a back-up power supply?
  4. Have you told your employees about your fire warning system, will they know how to operate it and respond to it?
  5. Are there instructions for your employees on how to operate the fire warning system and what action they should take on hearing a warning?
  6. Have you included the fire detection and fire warning arrangements in your emergency plan?

Means of escape

  1. How long will it take for all the occupants to escape to a place of safety once a fire has been detected?
  2. Is that a reasonable length of time or will it take too long?
  3. Are there enough exits and are they in the right place?
  4. Are the type and size of exits suitable and sufficient for the number of people likely to need to use them (e.g. wide enough for wheelchair users)?
  5. In the event of fire, could all available exits be affected or will at least one route from any part of the premises remain available?
  6. Are all escape routes easily identifiable, free from any obstructions and adequately illuminated?
  7. Have you trained your staff in using the means of escape?
  8. Are there instructions about the means of escape for your employees?
  9. Have you included your means of escape arrangements in your emergency plan?

Means of fighting fire

  1. Are the extinguishers suitable for the purpose and of sufficient capacity?
  2. Are there sufficient extinguishers sited throughout the workplace?
  3. Are the right types of extinguishers located close to the fire hazards and people get to them without exposing themselves to risk?
  4. Are the locations of the extinguishers obvious or do you need to highlight their location?
  5. Have the people likely to use the fire extinguishers been given adequate instruction and training?
  6. Have you included use of fire-fighting equipment in your emergency plan?

Maintenance and testing of fire precautions

  1. Do you regularly check all fire doors and escape routes and associated lighting and signs?
  2. Do you regularly check all your firefighting equipment?
  3. Do you regularly check your fire detection and alarm equipment?
  4. Do you regularly check any other equipment that help means of escape arrangements in the building?
  5. Are there instructions for employees about testing of equipment?
  6. Are those who test and maintain the equipment properly trained to do so?

Fire procedures and training

  1. Do you have an emergency plan?
  2. Does the emergency plan take account of all risks and circumstances?
  3. Are your employees familiar with the plan, trained in its use and involved in testing it?
  4. Is the emergency plan made available to all who need to be aware of it?
  5. Are the procedures to be followed clearly indicated throughout the workplace?
  6. Have you considered all the people likely to be in your workplace and others who share the building?

Risk Value Matrix

A Risk Value Matrix is an attempt at a quantitative approach to what is essentially a qualitative process of fire risk assessment.

A hazard is something that can cause harm and a risk is the probability that the harm will occur and the severity of it. In this matrix, the probability that an unwanted event will occur is defined as the fire risk, and the harm that would result from that event is defined as the fire hazard. The overall risk is defined as the Risk Value and is calculated by the simple formula:

Risk Value = Fire Hazard x Fire Risk

Numerical values are assigned to the fire hazard and the fire risk. The fire hazards are rated as being between negligible and very severe, and a numerical value is assigned to each rating. Similarly, the fire risks are rated as being between unlikely to very likely, and a numerical value is assigned to each rating. The size of the risk value then becomes the basis for categorising the workplace as being of high, normal, or low risk.

Risk Value

If the risk value formula is applied to all possible combinations of fire hazard values and fire risk values then a set of twenty-five numbers is available for the risk values. This can be displayed on a two dimensional grid (below) which is called a Risk Value Matrix.

Risk Value Matrix

Assuming that most workplaces would be of normal risk, with very few of low risk, and slightly more of high risk, the 5 x 5 matrix (above) assigns low risk to values of 1-2, normal risk to values of 3-15, and high risk to values of 16-25.

It should be noted that the values are relative, having no absolute signifance whatsoever, and the risk categories are arbitrary. An alternative Risk Value Matrix might be:

Alternative Risk Value Matrix

Risk Factor Matrix

The Risk Factor Matrix is a variation of the Risk Value Matrix and can be used as an alternative method of grading risks.

The 6 x 6 classification table (matrix) lists the frequency of occurrence of an unwanted event and the severity of the harm that it would cause were it to occur. The scale of these two elements of the risk are given numerical values of X for frequency and Y for harm.

Risk Factor Matrix 

A Risk Factor is then calculated for each unwanted event. The risk factor is obtained by multiplying the applicable X by Y values in the classification table, e.g. if X is 3 and Y is 2 then the risk factor is 6 (3x2 = 6).

Risk Factor = XY

Once a number of individual risk factors for unwanted events have been determined for the given area of the assessment it is necessary to determine the Average Risk Factor for that area. The average risk factor is the sum of all the individual risk factors (Σ XY) divided by their number (n), e.g. if there are 5 risk factors in the area with a sum of 32 then the average risk factor for the area is 6.4 (32 / 5 = 6.4).

Average Risk Factor = (Σ XY) / n

The maximum value of the risk factor will be 36 for a 6 x 6 matrix (6x6 = 36). The risk factor value of any given unwanted event can then be expressed as a percentage of the maximum value, e.g. a risk factor value of 1 would be 100 x 1/36 = 2.8% of the maximum and a risk factor value of 9 would be 100 x 9/36 = 25% of the maximum.

The average risk factor is then expressed as a percentage of the maximum risk factor value by multiplying the average by 2.8 for a 6 x 6 matrix (or by 4 for a 5 x 5 matrix). The resultant figure is known as the Risk Rating for the area.

Risk Rating = 2.8 x Σ XY / n

For example, if our average risk factor for the area is 6.4 (32 / 5 = 6.4) then we multiply 6.4 by 2.8 to get our risk rating for the area expressed as a percentage, i.e. 18% (using rounded numbers).

It is then necessary to determine what ranges of values of the risk rating would indicate that the area of assessment should be assigned a risk category of low, normal, or high. Possible ranges are shown in the table below:

Risk Rating

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