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It happened again! A meat packing plant in Kansas recently caught fire after a spark from welding activity came into contact with some nearby grease. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished quickly, resulting in minimal damage to the property.

That wasn’t the case earlier in the year when a few sparks from a welder ignited a massive fire that burned through the Dade City, Florida business center for more than a day. A fire investigation found that employees at the industrial complex were working to extend an exhaust duct to a furnace when sparks from the welder ignited some combustibles. The estimated damage to the complex is about $3 million.

According to a recent National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report, US fire departments responded to an average of 4,630 structure fires per year between 2013 and 2017 involving hot work. Beyond cutting or welding blow torches used in the incidents above, hot work can also involve soldering equipment, burners, heat treating equipment, tar pots or tar kettles, power nail guns, staples and stud drivers that use gunpowder charges. Hot work tools act as an ignition source especially under various circumstances such as when combustible material is nearby.

These fires caused an average of 15 civilian deaths, 198 civilian injuries and $355 million in direct property damage per year. Of them, the majority — 57% — occurred at commercial or non-residential properties while 43% occurred in or on homes.

Not on my watch!
What’s bothersome about these statistics is that a good majority of these fires were 100% preventable. I’m convinced that more methodical attention to safety rules and the right precautions could have done the trick. Why the confidence? Because I speak from experience.

I am a stickler for rigid rule following. In part, it can be attributed to my military background. I started my career as a Fire Protection Specialist (firefighter) in the United States Air Force. Part of my 10 year-tenure with the Air Force was spent serving as an Assistant Fire Chief, including a stint leading a 100-member fire department protecting a large Air Force logistics center.

Military bases have their share of combustibles, flammable materials and other fire hazards. Various hot work, including welding or soldering, was required on a day-to-day basis at these facilities. Careful attention to hot work protocols was also a must and rigorously enforced on base.

I was trained by a hard-nosed fanatic. Therefore, I became a hard-nosed fanatic about implementing tried and true hot work protocols anytime such work was performed at the facility. While it might not have made me the most popular guy at times, I can proudly say -- there was never a fire on my watch.

No Pencil Whipping
The good news is that the same prevention guidance that we banked on at our military base is widely available and used by many. It’s called the NFPA 51B Standard for Fire Prevention During Welding, Cutting, and Other Hot Work. Tentatively adopted in 1960, the NFPA adopted its first edition in 1962. Since then, subsequent editions continued to refine and enhance these preventative measures. For instance, the 2009 edition, added new requirements for listed and/or approved welding blankets, pads, and curtains and personal protective equipment, among other updates.

Hot work can be a routine activity in many workplaces. The appropriate precautions have to be equally routine. Unfortunately, when we review the fire claims that come across our desks, we’re seeing complacency with hot work protocols, not enforcement.

In my military days, we would call it pencil whipping. In other words, you go through the motions – checking off all the boxes -- but you’re not really doing it. You are not really implementing the safety standards and protocols, as outlined in NFPA’s standard, to prevent hot work-ignited fires and have proven to be effective over the last 50+ years.

Do it!
OSHA and other government agencies mandate permits when using hot work tools in hazardous environments. The hot work permit itself can be used as a checklist to substantiate that proper safety precautions are taken. Hot work permits authorize individual hot work operators and fire watchers to recognize potential hazards including requesting the use of welding pads, blankets or curtains, clearing combustibles from a 35-foot radius space around the hot work or moving the hot work to an area free of combustibles. Relatively simple steps that drastically minimize igniting a fire.

Failure to take proper precautions, and follow what’s actually mandated, has had catastrophic results. For instance, many will recall a news-making fire in March 2014 that killed two Boston firefighters. The fire was sparked by unpermitted and improper welding activity. OSHA found that the company performing the work did not have an effective fire prevention and protection program, failed to train its employees in fire safety, did not follow hot work protocol by having a fire watch present, a person is assigned to keep watch on hot work and fire hazards in an area, and failed to move the railing to another location where welding could be performed safely.

Training is now mandatory state-wide in Massachusetts for all those responsible for hot work, their construction managers, safety directors, fire watch team members and others including homeowners and hobbyists that use hot work equipment.

Be very aware
Performing hot work safely relies on awareness. It’s essential to be aware of the surroundings and nearby materials that could catch fire. OSHA, NFPA and others suggest adopting what they call a “Recognize, Evaluate and Control” process:

  • Recognizing the fire risks before hot work is started
  • Evaluating if hazards are present, especially hazards that could fuel a fire, such as flammable and combustible liquids or gases and simple combustibles
  • Controlling the situation by taking appropriate steps to eliminate or minimize the hazards

Equally important is to be aware that common-sense protocols really do minimize hot work risk. When we check the box, we need to do it after having taken seriously taken the right hot work precautions.

To help, AXA XL Risk Consulting has a variety of tools and guidelines to help our clients including a GAP Guidelines on “Cutting, Welding, and other Hot Work.” Or read How to prevent the risk of hot work fires risk bulletin.

When I see millions of dollars of property losses resulting from a situation that could have easily been prevented, I do get fired up! Rules are put into place for a reason. That’s especially the case for preventing hot work fires.

And trust me. Rigorously enforcing them will assure that a fire does not happen on my watch, or yours.

About the Author: Eager to learn more about hot work safety, contact John Frank at 1 404 431 2673 or