Sparks fly: Understanding the hazards of hot work safety

May 10, 2024

Senior Investigator Patrick Earley explains the overlooked aspects of hot work and the comprehensive guidelines that NFPA 51B covers

The risks associated with hot work, such as welding, cutting, and soldering, demand strict adherence to safety standards.

Patrick Earley, a Technical Committee (Special Expert) member of NFPA 51B, and senior investigator with J.S. Held LLC, is more than familiar with NFPA 51B, which sets the guidelines for managing these risks effectively.

IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey recently caught up with Earley to discuss essential safety protocols and evaluate both traditional and technological methods to prevent fire-related incidents in various hot work applications.

What is hot work?

NFPA 51B is a standard for fire prevention during welding, cutting, and other hot work operations.

“It is crucial for stakeholders in hot work operations to thoroughly understand this standard to determine if hot work is necessary,” Earley tells.

“If it is, they must ensure that they are meeting the requirements for clearance of combustibles, shielding, and adhering to other mandated safety practices.”

Hot work refers to any activity that involves open flames, sparks, or tools and equipment that produce heat.

This includes processes such as welding, cutting, brazing, soldering, grinding, and other similar activities that generate heat and sparks.

Hot work has the potential to ignite flammable materials, gases, or vapours in the surrounding environment, which can lead to fires or explosions if proper precautions are not taken.

Some common applications of hot work occur across all trades and maintenance tasks, such as sweating or soldering pipes, applying hot asphalt on a flat membrane roof, brazing air conditioning lines for new installations or repairs, and grinding materials.

One significant oversight in hot work safety is the narrow interpretation by some professionals who only associate these guidelines with welding or torch operations.

“They often overlook that grinding, brazing, soldering, spot welding, and any operation producing sparks also fall under these guidelines,” Earley explains, emphasizing that it is a broad category that addresses these activities and extends to tasks involving hazardous materials or even the use of a torch for applications like shrink wrapping a boat, despite being covered under different specific standards.

“Essentially, anytime there is the use of an open flame or production of sparks, I strongly recommend referencing NFPA 51B,” he says.

Risks and responsibilities

Ensuring safety in hot work can be achieved through a few straightforward steps: recognize, evaluate, and control the potential risks.

The first step is to identify the type of hot work to be performed and recognize all potential fuel hazards in the work area.

The second step involves evaluating the identified hazards and assessing the likelihood of fuel and ignition sources coming into contact during the hot work process.

The final step is to control these hazards by implementing measures to either eliminate or minimize the risk of fire altogether.

A key aspect of NFPA 51B is the use of a checklist to guide these evaluations.

“The checklist emphasizes that if an operation requires an open flame and poses a significant risk, alternatives should be considered,” Earley explains.

“For instance, the introduction of non-flame producing fittings has significantly contributed to reducing hot work-related fires.”

Fire Watch

Fire watch duties are a critical aspect of hot work safety.

The individual on fire watch duty is solely responsible for monitoring the site during the hot work and for an hour afterwards, ensuring there are no spot fires, smouldering fires, embers, or any other risks extending beyond the designated area.

The primary duty of the fire watch is to prevent fire outbreaks.

“According to NFPA 51B, the fire watch must be maintained for one hour after the completion of the hot work, not just during the work but also while cleaning up and leaving the site,” Earley stresses.

The duration of the fire watch might be reduced to 30 minutes in certain cases, depending on the specific risks identified by the responsible person.

If the hot work is conducted in areas where hazards like combustible materials are not directly observable—such as in factories, on different levels, or in sub-levels—additional fire watch personnel may be required.

 “It’s essential that the fire watch is a dedicated role, as the most significant issue observed is the lack of proper fire watch implementation,” he adds.

Whilst the human fire watch is an essential role, Earley notes that the possibility of reducing human fire watch duties using technology, such as thermal cameras, is being explored.

“These cameras are similar to those used by home inspectors, which allow for digital scanning of an area to detect hazards like smouldering embers,” he shares.

Experts are currently evaluating whether such technology can reliably detect small embers that might be missed by the human eye.

While it’s unlikely that technology will completely replace the human element, Earley suggests it has the potential to reduce the need for multiple fire watches on multi-floor projects.

“Instead of having a fire watch on each floor, a single person could monitor several floors through digital recordings,” he explains.

However, he notes that there is still variability and ongoing debate about how much we can rely on these technologies to reduce the duration and number of human fire watches and that this involves coordination with fire departments and first responders who use similar technology for emergency situations.

Standards and education

With a background in fire investigations, Earley has seen many cases related to hot work operations, some proving to have a strong influence on his views around industry’s standards.

He details one memorable instance from over a decade ago while working as a fire inspector in New Jersey, a fire involving a man using a torch to remove paint from his house, ignited the soffits and caused a significant fire damage.

“This incident affected me deeply as it involved a fire lieutenant (who sustained injury) whose I knew well—our fathers worked together,” he tells.

It highlighted that hot work is not just a minor issue but a major risk if not managed properly.

Earley says that hot work is one of the few truly preventable types of fire loss: “Failures often occur because of inadequate clearances, failure to check under surfaces, and not removing combustibles or establishing safeguards.

If you don’t spend that extra half-hour or 45 minutes clearing insulation from wall cavities, removing flammable materials, and reducing potential fire hazards, a fire is almost inevitable.”

Hot work requires meticulous attention to detail to prevent unwanted fires.

Unfortunately, however, cost often drives decision-making in unsafe directions.

A cheaper contractor might skip essential safety steps, such as in an incident Earley recalls in which a low-cost job resulted in a significant fire, impacting an entire city block.

“Cheaper isn’t always better, especially when it comes to fire safety,” Earley warns.

Another critical aspect that must address is education around hot work, for which Earley is a staunch advocate: “The Fire Service has not done enough to educate the community, and this needs to change.

Education should start with the consumer, the property owner, the annual users, emphasizing the importance of hot work safety.

Without proper education, people remain unaware of the risks.

“The problem of cost-cutting at the expense of safety persists globally.

We need to insist that manufacturers include explicit safety instructions in their packaging, warning against improper practices.”

Earley is involved with the NFPA 51B’s public outreach efforts to enhance education.

“Having witnessed the devastating losses that can occur, my passion for educating people has only intensified,” he says.

“I’ve been in the fire service for over 25 years, but I am also a human being who has seen the impact of these losses firsthand.

“We must continue to push for education and awareness as crucial elements of fire safety.”

The future of hot work safety

As the field continues to evolve, Earley believes that there will be advancements in the field hot work safety protocols that professionals will have to get to grips with.

“The future of hot work safety interesting intriguing, especially with the ongoing technological advancements.

“For instance, the introduction of ProPress and SharkBite fittings, along with certain roofing products that do not require heating, represents a shift towards reducing traditional hot work.

“Despite this, the increase in DIY enthusiasts, particularly those who took up metalwork or forging as hobbies during the COVID-19 pandemic, means that hot work is still very much in practice.”

Looking ahead, he says that technology may play a critical role, particularly in the regulation of fire watch duties using thermal cameras: “The industry is currently exploring whether these technologies can accurately detect minute increases in temperature from activities like welding.

“This is an interesting area of study that continues to evolve with technological progress, aiming to potentially reduce fire incidents significantly.”

Training and Certification

Earley added that the National Fire Protection Association has a great online certification program for Hot Work Safety Certificate, along with a searchable database of all certificate holders.

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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