Cigarette-related fires: Protect your building!

Not too far from your building, a hair salon has been boarded up for the last six months. Why? A fire caused by a cigarette butt flicked over a balcony. During reconstruction, the owner reopened in a temporary and less spacious location. Many of her salon regulars switched to the competition. Million-dollar question: how many years does it take for a salon to regain the level of its past success?

Whatever your sector of activity, you don’t want an event like that harming your business or building! So, let’s review what you can do to prevent the risks associated with cigarettes and smoking paraphernalia.

Mandatory: Making sense of the fire triangle

LFlames are the result of combustion. A fire grows out of control when three interdependent elements are combined (the infamous fire triangle):

  • an oxidizing agent, such as oxygen in the air
  • fuel, such as paper, wood, etc.
  • a source of ignition, such as hot ashes

The risk of fire disappears if one of these components is removed from the mix.

Why keep highlighting cigarette-related risks

This is because smoking-related fires are 100% preventable with a bit of forethought. It’s hard to take these fires lightly when stats like this exist:

  • Even though there are fewer smokers today than 20-30 years ago, the number of related fires has not decreased. It was the 2nd main cause of fire on the Island of Montreal in 2020, 29% of them to be exact.
  • Many lives are at stake. In Canada, cigarettes are the number one cause of fire-related fatalities.
  • This type of fire also causes more property and financial damage than those that start through other means – it leaves a lasting legacy even if you are fully insured. Home and business owners have everything to gain by increased prevention!

Prevention that changes according to your sector of activity

You own your business or maybe manage a condo group. The type of smoking-related fire prevention you need to undertake really depends on your sector of activity. Here’s an introduction to some safety measures to implement in three sectors facing specific challenges:

  • real estate
  • mechanical shops
  • restaurants

The worst situation… would be to not identify the risk, especially when it is important to do so.

A specific example… of a dangerous situation

Vincent noticed in the lumberyard at his local hardware store…

a) Some workers always have a smoke in their mouth.
b) There are highly flammable materials everywhere.
c) All elements of the fire triangle are present in open areas that do sometimes get windy.

“… But I’ve never seen any fire extinguisher, let alone any prevention efforts,” comments Vincent.

That’s what you call playing with fire!

Example 1: If you own or manage one or more buildingss

Building fire prevention is a broad subject. One thing’s for sure, fire can quickly spread even in buildings with working smoke detectors and a well-maintained sprinkler system. Fewer and fewer apartment and condo buildings now allow smoking. This is why fire often starts outside, especially in the warmer months.

Remain vigilant outside around flowerbeds and flowerpots. Black earth, mulch, moss, fertilizer, potting soil – all these materials can catch fire, even four or five hours after contact with a poorly extinguished butt or hot ashes.

To reduce the risk…

  • Establish an outdoor smoking area at least 9m or more from the entrance and openings.
  • Provide high-sided ashtrays or non-flammable sand-filled containers. They must be positioned on a stable surface.
  • Put up smoking signage that identifies areas where smoking is allowed and where not to smoke or throw cigarette butts.
  • Is smoking allowed in your building? Consider introducing a no-smoking rule or educating your renters about the risks:
    - no smoking or vaping in bed when drowsy
    - always put ashes and cigarette butts in an ashtray positioned on a stable surface
    - keep hazardous items out of reach of children, etc.

Example 2: In the garage

If you own a mechanical shop, you’re already aware that it – like beauty salons or solvent-filled hardware stores – is one of the locations with an elevated risk of serious fire or burns. Garages stock flammable liquids: thinner, industrial cleaning agents, oils, etc.

Your prevention strategy therefore begins and ends with rigorous maintenance, and that includes:

  • Keeping work areas as clean as possible
  • Storing rags soiled with a product like oil in resealable containers
  • Taking all necessary precautions when handling fuel

Beware of the flash point

An open fuel can releases flammable vapours: all it takes is a spark or a burning cigarette to light it up. It is of the utmost importance to contain vapours to avoid the flash point – a chemical reaction that leads to severe fires. Maintaining proper ventilation is also necessary.

  • Prohibit smoking or vaping (at all times) in areas that contain flammable products, scraps or any other material
  • Educate employees about the risks

If there are smokers on your team, set aside a specific spot for them away from high-risk areas and provide a proper ashtray or container to dispose of cigarette butts.

Example 3: In a restaurant

In Canada, each province determines its own rules on smoking in public places. Eastern provinces, such as Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, have rather strict rules in place. In those provinces, for example, it is prohibited to smoke inside restaurants and on their outdoor patios. If you are a restaurant owner, it is vital to enforce the rules to the letter.

Kitchens also store many flammable items, including several fatty substances. Restaurant owners need to:

  • Educate employees about the issue (zero tolerance for smoking indoors
  • Make sure that hood filters and vents are cleaned regularly
  • Establish a dedicated area outside for those who need their nicotine fix – failing to do so may result in a violation of the law

In a nutshell: Avoid the triangle!

We can never get rid of all the combustible materials in the workplace, let alone the oxygen that feeds the flames (we’ve all got to breathe, don’t we!). However, we can always implement concrete measures to prevent a cigarette from completing that infamous fire triangle.

Besides protecting your building or business, you avoid commercial insurance claims and look after your building tenants. What could be more important?