When Cleaned Should Mean Safe

December 12, 2009

The Fire Safety Order, which became law in October 2006, has undoubtedly raised the awareness of those responsible for facilities and buildings management to ensure that building occupants are not put at risk from the dangers of fire. More comprehensive fire risk assessments are now being produced to identify possible sources of fire and to set down the methods to eliminate, or at the very least to minimise these risks.

One installation which is often given less attention than its high fire risk potential warrants is the grease extract ventilation system so often linked to catering facilities.

At a recent seminar a spokesman for the London Fire Brigade drew specific attention to the fire dangers of these systems. As he stated “Uncleaned grease extract ventilation systems present probably the greatest potential fire risk in buildings with catering facilities”. He was referring to the typical grease extract system which takes grease laden air from the kitchen via the canopy to exhaust to atmosphere. Grease particles accumulate on the internal surfaces of the extract ducting requiring only a spark or flash to ignite.

There is therefore an indisputable need to have put in place a cleaning regime for grease extract systems which will ensure that potentially flammable grease deposits are fully removed.

The Fire Safety Order requires the appointment of a “responsible person” to ensure that comprehensive fire risk assessments are produced and all necessary measures taken to safeguard the lives of the building’s occupants.

Unfortunately it is my experience that even where a “responsible person” has been appointed – and it is often the Facilities or Buildings Manager who takes on this role – and the grease extract system has been included in the risk assessments, a measure of dangerous complacency is often allowed to take over.

Assuming the grease extract system does retain potentially inflammable grease deposits (as it invariably does if it has not been cleaned), the next stage should be the appointment of a professional cleaning contractor to remove the potential fire hazard from the system. Too often however, having commissioned the cleaning, little effort is made to ensure the system has been thoroughly cleaned and made safe. Instead there is often reliance on a statement, sometimes not even written, from the cleaning contractor that the system has been cleaned. My experience is that all too frequently many systems have, at best, only been partially cleaned. Because to check often means some inconvenience, e.g. removing ceiling panels to reach ducting, the “responsible person” does not know how well it has been cleaned and whether or not it remains a fire risk.

This complacency brings dangers of another kind. Should a fire occur involving the ducting it will be no defence to claim “I thought it had been cleaned”. To blame the contractor might seem like a ‘get out of jail free’ card but has little validity in the context of the way Insurers, and in disputed cases the Courts, will interpret whether or not all reasonable care was taken to comply with the Legislation. It is the “responsible person’s” responsibility to ensure that he is getting what he has commissioned – the elimination of fire hazardous conditions.

The photograph shown here is the internal ducting of an extract system where the “responsible person” claimed the system had been regularly cleaned. It was clearly not and remains a fire hazard. Admittedly if advantage had not been taken of my company’s free system survey these conditions could have remained undetected for months, perhaps years and not been the cause of a fire. But as has occurred in six restaurant fires in the last two months, grease accumulations in the ducting can turn localised kitchen fires into major conflagrations with considerable fire damage to buildings, contents and surrounding structures. In at least two of these cases Insurers are refusing to accept liability because their warranties requiring thorough cleaning of the extract systems had not been complied with, albeit that the owners in both cases thought they had put in place effective cleaning contracts. Of more concern; if there had been a fatality from such fires the “responsible person” could be facing criminal prosecution charges.

Grease extract ducting cannot be cleaned unless access to the ducting has been effected to allow thorough removal of grease deposits. And don’t believe any assurance from a contractor that he will not need to install access panels as he will be using motorised or other mechanical devices to provide cleaning. These might be appropriate for cleaning air systems but grease deposits in ducting can only be fully eliminated by old fashioned elbow grease aided by cleaning chemicals, brushes, scrapers and cloths.

Finally, having checked that the system has been well cleaned demand a work completion certificate which states clearly what has been cleaned and identifies any areas which cannot be physically accessed for cleaning. You can then be confident you have complied with the Legislation and Insurance requirements.