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Universities and colleges face tougher checks on fire safety

28 September 2006 | last updated: 15 December 2015

Universities and colleges in England and Wales have been warned by their staff in UCU to expect closer examination of their fire safety arrangements from 2 October after new regulations are introduced.

While major fires and injuries in further and higher education are relatively rare, one fire destroyed a research centre at Southampton University last year and minor incidents are common. There were 470 reported incidents in England and Wales in 2004 and 32 fires in Greater London colleges or universities between October 2004 and September 2005.

Ignition has commonly originated from naked lights, hotplates and microwaves, fluorescent lights and electrical appliances. It has also arisen from switchgear and generators and industrial appliances and during paint stripping, welding and chemical processes. Other origins include medical equipment, computers, at least one vacuum cleaner - and one lightning strike.

On 1 October new regulations, The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, will require all employers including universities and colleges in England and Wales, to implement fire risk assessments, rather than receive inspections from fire authorities.

But UCU says too many employers in further and higher education have a doubtful record on risk assessment and a poor record of consultation with union safety representatives. And it fears many colleges and universities may not have competent people in place to fulfil safety duties.

UCU sees the new regulations as a chance to improve matters. It has informed the employers' associations for higher education institutions (UCEA), and for FE colleges (AoC) that it intends to closely monitor the implementation of the regulations. Union checks could begin on 2 October 2006.

UCU has asked the employers' associations to 'strongly encourage' university and college managers to meet with UCU safety reps to guarantee that regulations are effectively implemented. The union will shortly do a survey to find out how employers have responded, and will publish the results.

It will monitor several aspects including:

  • the extent to which risk assessment has been implemented;
  • the extent to which 'competent persons' have been appointed and trained;
  • the extent to which employees have been fully informed in accordance with employers' duties;
  • the extent to which union health and safety reps have been consulted.

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at UCU, said: 'Although there are very few fire related injuries in further and higher education, there are too many incidents. And in too many colleges and universities it is not unusual to find there are no fire drills or evacuation plans and that safety reps are kept in the dark.

'Their track record on risk assessment is patchy and we will vigorously monitor the implementation of the new safety regulations, which must include proper consultation with union health and safety reps. If we prevent a single injury or tragedy it will be worth it. In the process, we expect to improve communications and safety information in workplaces and to make them safer, healthier and more comfortable places for staff and students.'

Major fires have included:

You can download below Microsoft Excel files listing fires in FE and HE from 1995-2004 and October 2004-September 2005 (source: Department for Communities and Local Government).