Businesses Still Going Up In Flames Despite No-Smoking Laws

As we near the end of ‘give up smoking’ initiative Stoptober, employers may be breathing a sigh of relief, believing that every time an employee gives up smoking, their exposure to a potential fire in the workplace diminishes … but does it?

Even after the legislation that banned smoking in the workplace as from July 1 2007, we have seen cases emerge where employees have continued to smoke, on the sly, and caused major issues. 

In January 2014, the Daily Mail reported on the case of a crisp factory worker who caused a £25 million fire by carelessly discarding a cigarette at work, whilst trying to avoid being caught out smoking illegally.  Sixty-five firefighters were called to the blaze that resulted within just ten minutes and the worker was eventually jailed for six years.  100 workers lost their jobs when the boss decided not to rebuild the factory.

Extensive damage also occurred at a recycling centre at Milton Keynes when a discarded cigarette end set it ablaze. This case became part of a legal wrangle, as liability and the justification for indemnity payments were debated by some of the country’s top QCs.

Carelessly discarded cigarettes have caused fires in places such as the underground electrical room of a multi-storey office block and in a plant pot on a balcony.  Just because the public smoking ban exists, doesn’t mean employees won’t try to flout the law, even when smoking next to highly flammable materials and hazardous substances.  Employers need to do all they can, and be seen to be doing all they can, to enforce the ban and make all employees adhere to it.

If they don’t, businesses in England and Wales can be fined up to £2500, whilst not displaying the required no smoking signs can result in a fine of up to £1000.  In Scotland there is a fixed penalty fine of £200 for an employer, which can rise to £2500 if the fine is not paid.

Fire damage in commercial premises costs businesses in the UK more than a billion pounds a year, which is why employers and their nominated health and safety ‘Responsible Person’ need to make every effort to focus on illegal smoking in the workplace, whilst carrying out their fire safety checks and required fire risk assessment.

They should also provide guidelines on stubbing cigarettes out properly and disposing of them with care.  The risk assessment should consider whether part-lit cigarettes could ignite other materials, or blow back into the building, from the external smoking zone.  Employers should make every effort to provide external aids such as sand buckets and special disposal trays and boxes for cigarettes, offering guidance on how to use these, as placing a lit cigarette into what could be perfect, dry kindling, can cause a fire of its own. 

This may mean changing habits.  Environmental group, Tidy Britain, says cigarette litter is the country’s most common type of street litter and more prolific in poorer areas.  We are a nation used to throwing butts on the ground and not in a safer, dedicated sand bucket or bin.  Employers need to take that into account within their fire risk assessment.

But what of the e-cigarette?  The current public smoking ban does not apply to it and it is down to individual employers to decide how to deal with vaping.  Medical experts have been reticent to make claims about the health benefits of these cigarettes, as the long-term effects of vaping on health are not yet known, as ACAS advises.  Vapour could annoy other employees, whilst two different external zones for vaping and normal cigarette smoking might be necessary, if vaping is not allowed inside the building, to support those employees trying to kick the habit.

Causing more smoke clouds around this issue is the fact that e-cigarettes and their chargers are increasingly becoming sources of fires in their own right, with 62 blazes caused by e-cigarettes and associated devices attended in 2014 – an increase on 8 blazes in 2012 and 43 in 2013.  Employers need to take e-cigarettes into their considerations when carrying out their Fire Risk Assessment and regular fire safety checks.

Whatever you decide to do is down to you, the employer, as you have a duty of care with regard to your employees.  You need to seriously assess all possible outcomes and risks that could result, ensure all of these are minimised by taking appropriate actions and document all of this in your Fire Risk Assessment and Health and Safety Policy.

The implications of not getting this right could be catastrophic for your employees and your business, but it may be a complicated and time-consuming task for you to do.  Remember that, if you want your fire risk and health and safety assessments to be meaningful documents that protect both your staff and your business’s future, rather than just smoke and mirrors, experts are at hand.  By getting in touch with Gauntlet Fire on 0113 244 8686, you could prevent your future livelihood and reputation going up in flames.