WHY RISK IT? Remove the risk of fire during roof refurbishments 

With warmer weather just around the corner – we hope – now is the perfect time to think about any roofing works that may be required for your institution. But with safety, particularly fire safety, at the top of everyone’s agenda, how do you ensure that your next project places the welfare of staff, students and construction workers first, while protecting precious buildings and assets. 

Whether the current roof is allowing water into the building, causing damage, or an upgrade is due to enhance thermal performance and reduce energy bills, choosing to embark on a roof refurbishment can have very positive results. From a new build perspective, high performance roofing is a key element to consider when designing a school fit for the future. Fortunately recent schemes such as the Priority School Building Programme and other funding streams have meant that many more establishments can benefit from increased energy efficiency, whether it be a refurbishment or new building.

A number of roofing systems are installed using gas fuelled torches. Known as ‘naked flame’ or ‘hot works’ installation, this type of work can be hugely risky if not undertaken correctly. Sadly, there have been a spate of devastating fires at schools and other sites across the UK over the past few years caused by roofing works, which have led many to question the safety of this type of project. However, these fires may have been prevented if the correct installation techniques and safety guidelines had been adhered to.

Roof fires not only cause potential harm to those on site, they also wreak havoc on the premises and adjacent buildings, destroying property, which in turn disrupts the school term. Not to mention the water damage caused by putting the fire out. Pupils and staff may have to deal with a complete closure or having their lessons relocated, which not only has a huge impact on learning outcomes, but also causes massive emotional stress. Add to this the costs associated with finding a temporary building for the school to continue operating. Loss of school work, books and data is a further concern, especially for those that have paper records and haven’t got an electronic back up.

Due to these risks and the devastation fires can cause, the Government’s published advice to schools is clear, “Any construction activity involving hot works has the potential to cause a serious fire, therefore they should only be undertaken when all other options have been considered first.” In other words, if there is a roof covering that fits the bill and doesn’t use naked flame installation, it is always best to specify that system instead. 

It is important to be aware that the responsibility for controlling this risk is shared by the school and the contractor under section 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In addition, an update to the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM 2015), places new obligations on clients and facilities managers, who must now ensure the competency of those working on the project, especially when it comes to health and safety. 

More than ever, clients need to trust in the expertise of the team they hire to carry out any construction work, so they don’t get caught out. Working with trusted suppliers is key, so look out for manufacturers that have a list of fully trained registered contractors. Once you have a basic knowledge about roofing products and how they are installed, you may be able to remove the risk of fire during a roof refurbishment. 

Fortunately the roofing industry has introduced a number of new and safer alternatives, giving customers a much wider and safer choice. One such product is single ply membrane, which offers the same level of, or in many cases, improved waterproofing durability as more traditional roofing products, while still being fast to install and cost effective – especially when you consider whole life cost.

Rather than using a naked flame, the single ply membrane itself is attached using adhesives or mechanical fastenings with laps sealed using a hot air welding tool. For example, roofing manufacturer Sika Sarnafil offers a range of durable single ply membranes that are always installed by fully trained operatives, through 20-40mm nozzles directed accurately and onto non-combustible substrates – a much safer option. 

However, despite many cold applied solutions now being available, such as mechanically fastened or self-adhesive products, there may still be instances where some minimal hot works might be needed for certain elements, such as installing certain vapour control layers or for drying off areas of the roof. If required, these should be limited and carried out by competent contractors, all as per regulatory procedures and the ‘Safe2Torch’ guidelines. Launched by the National Federation of Roofing Contractors, Safe2Torch is a campaign that contractors and manufacturers can sign-up to and aims to significantly reduce the risk of roof fires when using gas torches. 

There are also a new generation of non-flame e-heaters or dryers are becoming available, driven by the need for safer works. These should be embraced and promoted by the industry, and will likely become very popular.

For added peace of mind, Sika Sarnafil can guide you through the entire project with its total support services, from new build to refurbishment. Schools benefit from a full survey of the existing roof, guidance on specification of the best system to suit the project, along with frequent site inspections and a single-point guarantee. 

So, before commencing your next roof refurbishment project, ensure you appoint a competent team – including manufacturer and contractor – that puts health and safety first. Never underestimate the importance of choosing the right product for the job, especially when there are now plenty of high performance alternatives to those that require naked flame application. In this day and age, there’s no need to risk a fire and the devastation that follows.