Letters - More fire safety, testing at construction sites

THE Institution of Engineers, Malaysia (IEM) is grateful that nobody was hurt in the fire on the fifth floor of the Komtar Commercial Centre, Penang that began construction on Oct 15. This fire was in the construction site of the new theme park.

The fire caused disruption to traffic and trading in the area that Saturday morning.

Construction fire is a rather common occurrence but most of them go unnoticed or unreported, unlike this one because it happened right in the middle of George Town.

The majority of construction fires are caused by welding or cutting works with a flame torch. When hot sparks or hot metal slag rest on combustible material, a fire starts.

These types of fire can be prevented if adequate precautions are taken when such hot work is performed.

IEM would advocate construction sites increase safety by having a checklist on hot work and its safety requirements.

The authorities can look into implementing a Hot Work Permit, which would ensure proper inspections are carried out before any hot work is authorised.

A fire watch is required whenever welding or cutting is performed in locations where anything greater than a minor fire could develop.

Having a fire watch present and making fire extinguishers available would enable a fire to be extinguished at its incipient stage.

From the news photo and incident description, it would seem that some parts of the building were on fire.

Such building fires tend to be more common in modern buildings. The reason being that more and more plastic and composite building materials are being used. The use of such material can be viewed as changing with times.

This is because these have the added benefit of being lightweight, stronger, better insulated, easier to work with and form, and, in some instances, more sustainable and greener products.

Traditionally built buildings, such as brick, concrete or steel would be classed as non-combustible because they do not burn. Some combustible materials such as wood, timber, cock and finishing material like paper and cloths are necessary for building-finishing.

In order to ensure these materials are fire safe, test standards were established to ensure a certain fire spread is met.

The current fire tests being used in the building bylaws are rather small scale, sample tests. However, such fire tests may not be a true representation for such combustible materials like plastic and foam.

Plastics are generally combustible materials as they are mainly petroleum base. Fire retardants are added to make them safe, but manufacturers cannot add too much otherwise the plastic loses it basic properties.

IEM would support a review of existing testing standards to take into account the application of modern material. These new tests should typically include fire propagation, smoke and toxic gases produced. Knowing these materials are fire safe is also crucial for the long-term safety of the occupants as well.

We are thankful that firefighters managed to control this fire quickly. There have been many fires involving plastic construction material in other countries, such as the CCTV annex, Beijing in 2009 and Monte Carlo Hotel, Las Vegas in 2008.

There are better ways to manage fire safety, during construction as well as during building occupancy.

IEM is willing to provide the technical expertise and independent advice to authorities in reviewing the follow-up measures required to prevent similar accidents from occurring again.

Ir Tan Yean Chin
The Institution of Engineers Malaysia