Some months back, the Fire Analysis and Research Division was asked to run some numbers on fires in residential properties under construction or undergoing major renovation. This resulted in a new NFPA report, Fires in Residential Properties under Construction or Undergoing Major Renovation.
The results were largely straightforward. We found that fires in residential properties undergoing construction or major renovation, while a minor portion of all residential property fires, nevertheless accounted for an estimated 5,120 fires per year from 2007 to 2011. We also found that most of these fires and associated losses took place in one- or two-family homes. Many of the leading causes -- heating equipment, electrical distribution and lighting equipment, torches and shop tools, and smoking materials – were pretty unremarkable. But we were more than a little surprised to find that cooking was the leading cause of fires in residential properties under construction.
We were at a loss to explain how cooking-related activities could figure so prominently in housing units, which, by definition, were not occupied. When the findings were presented to some members of the building community, however, several spoke about the frequent use of hot plates or improvised heating devices to warm food at construction sites, and at least one company reported implementing a “no cooking rule” in response to safety concerns.
We were naturally relieved to learn that there was some anecdotal evidence to help account for our unexpected results. But while implementing worksite rules around cooking are a start, addressing the problem in a comprehensive way could require much more expansive prevention efforts.
Safety is a longstanding concern in construction environments, particularly residential construction. Many workers in this industry lack safety training, and many are temporary or immigrant workers for whom, as emphasized in a recent NIOSH blog, Safety and Health for Immigrant Workers, there are also sizeable language, cultural, and structural barriers to safety. It seems likely that safe practices related to cooking are associated with other health and safety concerns, including access to washing facilities, sanitary environments for eating, and overall workplace safety efforts. Good worksite fire safety practices, in this case, will likely be most effective when linked to proactive workplace safety cultures.