Workplace Fire Safety: Employer Responsibilities

If you’re an employer, understanding the law with regard to fire safety obligations is vital. Keeping your premises protected from the risk of a fire is important for two reasons. The obvious one is protecting staff and customers’ safety, but there’s also the prospect of legal penalties if you don’t follow the regulations.

In the UK, there are around 22,000 workplace fires each year. The fire service says many could be avoided by improved procedures. Keeping escape routes clear and ensuring extinguishers and alarms are in full working order is crucial.

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Testing the fire safety equipment on a regular basis and making sure there are enough employees trained to use the extinguishers is also the key to improved safety.

Main causes of workplace fires

Around 25% of workplace fires are caused by faulty electrics or incorrect use of electrical devices such as overloading circuits, or a lack of maintenance. Another major cause of fires in the workplace is the misuse of equipment, such as putting heaters too close to combustible materials or spilling drinks on electrical items.

The fire service says accidents will always happen but adhering to safety procedures and training staff properly will help minimise them. Even the smallest workplace kitchen or canteen must be kept clean. Always remove any flammable waste. Wipe out the oven regularly, as already-burned food waste can easily catch fire. The fourth biggest cause of workplace fires is human error, such as leaving cooking food unattended.

Tragic factory blaze

One of the most serious fires in UK history occurred in 1941, when the H Booth & Sons clothing factory, on the corner of John William Street and Viaduct Street, in Huddersfield, burned down. Tragically, 49 employees lost their lives in the blaze, most of them young women.

The cause of the fire was an employee’s pipe, which he had failed to douse properly before starting his shift. It was placed in a coat pocket in the restroom but set alight. The fire service noted most of the fatalities occurred on the upper floors of the five-storey building, as there wasn’t a fire escape.

Eyewitnesses reported how the building was a “towering inferno”. The upper floors collapsed, and employees were so terrified that they were leaping out of windows to escape the flames. The fire took just THREE MINUTES to get a grip of the building and claim the victims’ lives, according to the fire service.

A factory door that should have been closed to prevent the spread of fire had been left wedged open to allow late-comers to enter unimpeded. Fire chiefs believed a strong wind blowing through the open door fanned the flames, causing them to spread more quickly.

A report revealed the clothing factory had only one staircase, the fire alarm system wasn’t working and there was no evacuation drill in place. There was little chance of escaping.

Fire fatalities

There were 311 fire-related fatalities in the UK in the financial year from April 2020 to March 2021, according to the latest government statistics. The vast majority (240 fatalities) were in England, with 78% occurring in dwellings and the remainder in non-dwellings, such as the workplace.

The most common cause of death is being overcome by gas or smoke. Of the people who suffered injuries in a fire, 61% required hospital treatment. Just under half had to go to hospital as a result of their injuries, while the remainder were advised to have a cautionary check.

Although this was the lowest number since the comparable data began in 1981, officials say it reflects the fact the UK was in coronavirus lockdown during much of this period, so many workplaces weren’t open, thus reducing the number of fires.

Workplace fire safety regulations

The person responsible for fire safety in a business is the owner, employer, landlord or anyone else with authority in the premises such as a managing agent, facilities manager, risk assessor or building manager. The “responsible person” (or group of people) must ensure all fire safety regulations are adhered to.

The same Fire Safety Order also applies if you run a bed and breakfast, self-catering property or guesthouse and have paying guests.

The responsible person must carry out a fire risk assessment, inform employees of any risks you’ve identified, put in place the relevant fire safety measures and review them regularly. You must plan for an emergency and provide the appropriate fire safety instruction and training for staff.

The type of fire safety equipment you require depends on your business premises – you can liaise with the local fire service on this. Equipment must be properly installed, maintained and tested.

The employer must carry out regular checks to make sure fire alarms and emergency lighting are working. Any faults must be recorded and rectified. Escape routes must be kept clear and the floor maintained in good condition to aid escape if necessary.

Fire exit signs must be in the relevant place and if you have automatic fire doors, they must be checked regularly to ensure they open and close correctly.

Automatic fire safety doors have many benefits, such as providing an easy point of exit that avoids people having to manually hold a door open. Sliding doors compliant with the standard BS EN 16005 must-have emergency battery backup, so they will continue working even if the mains power fails.

You can connect them to the fire alarm, so they open automatically once it’s activated. You can also programme them to remain closed after the building’s occupants have escaped, either to control smoke, stop the spread of the fire, or to prevent oxygen from fuelling the blaze.

A battery backup can also be provided for swing doors as an added feature to aid fire safety. Swing doors can be connected to the fire alarm and opened automatically if activated to allow people to escape freely. A swing door unit, known as an inverse operator, can also remain closed for smoke and fire control when required.

Automatic fire safety doors can be combined with other fire protection systems for enhanced performance.

An as employer, you’re the person responsible for ensuring everyone escapes and for containing the fire as much as possible. Automatic fire doors can help to eliminate the risks by opening and closing smoothly when needed.

Manual fire doors can be heavy and cumbersome by nature. This could also cause accessibility issues in some buildings if a lot of employees are rushing to escape at the same time or for those with a disability.


As an employer, if you break the law in relation to fire safety you will face stiff penalties. You can receive an enforcement notice if there’s a serious risk that the fire authority feels isn’t being managed. You will have to make improvements by law within a specific deadline.

If the authority feels the risk to your premises is so severe that access must be limited until the problem is resolved, your business will receive a prohibition notice that can shut you down with immediate effect.