New fire safety laws come into effect in the autumn. Rich Airey discovers what they mean for retailers

The new fire safety laws that go live across England and Wales later this year could be seen as yet more unwanted paperwork - but this time it's red tape that could well save your business or your life.

A shake-up of the law will mean that from October 1, 2006, fire certificates will no longer be issued and the onus will be on retailers to reduce the risk of fire. Scotland and Northern Ireland will have their own laws that will also place a greater emphasis on prevention. 

Stores are one of the areas that the new legislation focuses on. While the fire service will still visit stores, retailers themselves must carry out a fire risk assessment and make a written recording of the findings if more than five members of staff are employed.

To help you through it, a series of guides is currently being produced. Guide one - for offices and shop premises - will talk retailers through the process of carrying out the necessary risk assessment. 

Hampshire, the largest county fire and rescue service in the UK, has been offering free guidance seminars and won praise for its activity from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). According to station manager, Ron Hedger, the reforms should help simplify the law for thousands of businesses.

"The new law consolidates existing fire legislation, which at present is scattered across more than 70 pieces of legislation," says Hedger. "The massive changes mean employers risk imprisonment if they are not properly protected. Fire certificates will be rendered null and void. Instead, full reliance will be placed on the fire risk assessment carried out by employers."

He adds: "At the moment, a dual system of fire safety is in place. Under workplace regulations all employers have to carry out a fire risk assessment and put in place necessary fire precautions. Many premises also need a fire certificate issued by the fire authority. The reforms remove the requirement for a fire certificate and extend the system of fire risk assessments. Employers should therefore review their fire risk assessments."

The Federation of Small Businesses has helped the ODPM to compile guides to the new laws. FSB policy development officer, Rosina Robson, says it's important retailers get hold of the guide for shops and offices as soon as it is published. 

"First of all, retailers should identify fire hazards and sources of ignition," she says. "They should note any particularly flammable products. The second stage is to identify any people, such as disabled staff or customers, who could be at particular risk. This is particularly relevant with the recent introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act."

The final stage of the risk assessment requires retailers to identify ways to reduce the risk of fire. This will include ensuring certain products are kept apart and that escape routes are properly lit.

Robson adds: "Convenience store owners should also think about staggering delivery times so as to not overload storage areas. While shop areas can be very organised, fire hazards can often be found in storage areas. It's also worth noting that 44% of fires in shops are the result of arson so store owners should think about reducing the risk by providing adequate outside lighting, training staff to be aware of the threat and making sure that rubbish is not left out on the street for too long, where it is at risk of being set alight."

She says that if retailers have any doubts, they should contact their local fire service and adds: "Although the new laws mean a new way of doing things, retailers shouldn't be too worried as the process is fairly straightforward."
The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) is also urging retailers to keep on top of the new laws and believes retailers won't find the task as bad as they first think. ACS public affairs manager James Lowman says: "People immediately get frightened at the thought of a risk assessment but it is something retailers already do naturally when running their business. 

"It's fair to say that some retailers will see this as another burden on them but in this case there are good safety reasons why it has to be done. They must not shut their eyes and hope it goes away. We will be happy to assist members in carrying out their risk assessment through our legal helpline."

For further information on what the changes mean to you and for details of seminars taking place in your area, contact your local fire authority.

Safety steps

- Identify the fire hazards - sources of ignition, fuel and oxygen
- Identify people at special risk - young children or disabled people
- Evaluate the risk - prevention, detection, escape and equipment
- Record your findings - a written emergency plan is required if more than five people are employed
- Review and revise - consider training and awareness courses available through local fire brigades

 

Changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland

Scotland and Northern Ireland will have their own laws on fire safety. New legislation through the Scottish Executive comes into force on October 1. The legislation is similar to the English and Welsh laws as Scottish retailers will also be required to carry out a risk assessment and record the details if more than five people are employed. They will also have specific duties in respect of staff members under the age of 18. A series of guides is being produced with the first generic version expected to be published in July. Further information is available at www.scotland.gov.uk

In Northern Ireland a definite time frame for its new fire safety laws has yet to be agreed, but it will be this year. In line with England, Wales and Scotland, there will be a greater emphasis on fire prevention through risk assessments but fire certificates will continue to be required. Further information is available from the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade, tel: 028 9266 4221, or www.nifrs.org

What's changing?

 - Fire certificates will be abolished and will cease to have legal status
- There will be a greater emphasis on fire prevention in non-domestic premises
- The fire safety order will apply in England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland will have their own laws
- Responsibility for complying with the order will rest with the 'responsible person' - the employer and any other people in control of the premises
- If there is more than one 'responsible person', steps must be taken to ensure they work with each other
- The 'responsible person' must carry out a fire risk assessment
- If you employ more than five people you must record the significant findings of the assessment.
- Enforcement of the new rules will lie with the local fire and rescue service authority, which will carry out regular inspections.

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