Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2020.

Under Construction, At Risk

A deadly South Korea blaze underscores the need for construction site fire safety measures


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Read a bulletin on NFPA 241.
Read the September/October 2017 NFPA Journal cover story, "Danger: Construction."

On April 29, 38 people died when a fire tore through a four-story warehouse under construction in South Korea. The blaze occurred in Icheon, about 50 miles southeast of the capital city of Seoul, and was the third "devastating workplace fire" in the East Asian country in recent years, according to the New York Times.

Chilling images from the incident showed dozens of ambulances lined up in front of the charred structure, waiting to treat victims. According to the Times, only about half of the workers who were inside the warehouse when the blaze broke out escaped. “We presume that an ignition of oil mist caused an explosion and that the sudden combustion gave the workers no chance to escape,” said Seo Seung-hyun, head of the Icheon Fire Department, according to the Associated Press. Later reports suggested the workers had been using polyurethane insulation foam, which is highly flammable, in addition to flammable solvents to dissolve the foam. They may have also been performing hot work. 

Construction site fires are a global problem. A simple online search on the morning of April 29 revealed 10 such fires in regions spanning from Asia to the United States to the Middle East in just the two weeks leading up to the South Korea blaze. In the US alone, NFPA data shows that fire departments respond to more than 17 fires in buildings under construction or undergoing renovations every day. These fires cause an annual average of 12 civilian deaths, 101 civilian injuries, and over $400 million in direct property damage. 

While some of these incidents have been blamed on specific construction materials—namely, lightweight wood—the truth is any construction site, regardless of the materials being used, is at high risk for burning. Common construction site activities like hot work, combined with the fact that security and fire protection measures are often lacking at these locations, prime buildings under construction or undergoing renovations for fires. 

“Construction sites are often unsecured, are home to many kinds of ignition sources, and are largely unprotected in terms of fire protection systems,” says Nicole Comeau, an NFPA segment director. “These vulnerabilities make it critical that safety programs are implemented and followed at all times to protect workers, civilians, first responders, the site itself, and surrounding sites.”

NFPA 241 and other resources  

An important tool for mitigating the fire hazards of construction sites is NFPA 241, Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations. The standard outlines measures to reduce the risk of fire in buildings under construction, as well as those being renovated or demolished. It requires building owners, who are tasked with implementing it, to designate a fire prevention program manager to make sure the correct fire safety measures are being followed during the entirety of a construction project. NFPA 1, Fire Code; NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®; the International Building Code; and the International Fire Code all require compliance with NFPA 241.

The use of NFPA 241 is a key step in preventing construction fires, according to Meghan Housewright, director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute. “Make sure your community enforces the most recent [edition] to keep up to date as construction practices change,” Housewright wrote in a blog last year, after a series of three costly construction fires occurred in the US. The current version of NFPA 241 is the 2019 edition, which replaced the 2013 edition to include, among other updates, added provisions supporting the need to secure temporary heating and cooking equipment at construction sites. Cooking equipment is the leading cause of construction site fires in the US, according to the NFPA data.

Housewright also said ensuring written fire prevention plans are included in the local construction permit process and having local policymakers engage in conversations with local fire officials and site managers to urge they go above and beyond the minimum safety requirements are essential to creating fire-safe construction sites.

In addition to NFPA 241, NFPA has also created a training program for construction workers who perform hot work. Hot work is any work process that involves welding, soldering, brazing, cutting, grinding, drilling, burning, or melting of substances capable of creating a spark or flame. It’s the fifth-leading cause of construction fires in the US. NFPA launched its training in 2016, a direct result of a 2014 hot work fire in Boston that killed two firefighters. In 2018, Massachusetts mandated that all workers who perform hot work must be certified through a program like NFPA's. 

Laura Moreno, a senior engineer at NFPA, said the training has been a big hit in the past four years. She shared glowing comments from individuals who had taken the training. "I would recommend this program to anyone," said one trainee, according to Moreno. "I have been a safety professional for over 25 years and learned new regulations and concepts in a short time," said another. 

While it’s important for policymakers, fire officials, and construction managers and workers to utilize resources like the ones offered by NFPA year-round, the international COVID-19 crisis has raised new and unique questions about construction site fire safety. If sites are temporarily abandoned because of a global emergency, for example, have they also been secured to prevent trespassers and would-be arsonists? Intentionally set fires are the fourth-leading cause of US construction fires. In mid-April, NFPA released a tip sheet to guide construction site safety during these unprecedented times. 

It’s unclear what impact, if any, the coronavirus pandemic had on the deadly construction fire in South Korea. What was clear is that it builds on the country's history of dangerous working conditions and devastating blazes. And according to a New York Times article published a few days following the fire, residents have had enough. 

"What angered many South Koreans was that the apparent causes of Wednesday’s fire were so familiar: vapors from a chemical solution filling a room where workers may have been generating sparks, with the ensuing fire fed by extremely combustible insulation," the newspaper said. "That combination has repeatedly turned South Korean construction sites and commercial buildings into tinder boxes." 

For some of the more than 400 firefighters who responded to the April 29 blaze, it likely recalled a similarly horrific incident that struck Icheon in January 2008, when a fire sparked in a cold-storage warehouse under construction killed 40 workers. It started "almost exactly the same way," according to the Times. In response to that incident, South Korea’s largest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, lambasted safety regulations in the country. "No matter how much our economy grows, a country where people’s lives are wasted this way cannot be called an advanced nation," the paper said, according to Reuters. 

Apparently, 12 years later, there is more work to do. "I am sorry that similar accidents are repeating themselves," said South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to the Times. “We are not learning lessons from the past accidents.” 

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images