Fireplace safety: promoting awareness

Securely fixing fireplaces

10 December 2019

There have been a number of avoidable child deaths in recent years from poorly fixed fire surrounds. Surveyors need to promote awareness of the problem, and understand what to look for on site

RICS has recently been approached by the technical policy division of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to help raise awareness of an issue with terrible consequences. The MHCLG’s attention has been drawn to the surprising frequency with which young children are killed or suffer life-changing injuries after being crushed by heavy fire surrounds that have inadequate or defective fixings.

Media coverage of this issue has looked into the deaths of children aged between 2 and 6, killed in little more than innocent play. It’s very difficult to put oneself in the shoes of parents who have lost a child, especially in accidents that are entirely preventable. But this is certainly an issue we must address in our work as RICS members.

Fire surrounds, also known as mantelpieces and chimneypieces, have been used as decorative framing for fireplaces for hundreds of years. They come in a number of materials, including for example various types of wood, stone, and modern resin laminates. Although building technology has moved on and fires are rarely used as the sole means of heating a home, fireplaces remain popular focal points for rooms even in modern properties. This tradition means surrounds remain desirable, and people will often install them retrospectively as ornamental features. However, this is also where risks can arise.

In many of the cases reported in the media, the children had climbed on to fire surrounds or tried to reach for something on the mantel shelf

It is important to recognise that fire surrounds can be extremely heavy – especially stone variants, which can easily exceed 60kg. In traditional buildings, surrounds were often built into the masonry wall substrate, which provided an intentionally strong fixing, but this is unlikely to be the case in modern buildings, especially homes that may be divided with lightweight timber-frame partitions.

Whether new or salvaged, fire surrounds may come with minimal fixings – indeed, on previous projects that I have seen, many stone fire surrounds are provided with either flimsy metal brackets to be built into or screw-fixed to masonry – and sometimes with none at all.

In many of the cases reported in the media, the children had climbed onto fire surrounds or tried to reach for something on the mantel shelf. Without sound fixings, the surrounds dislodged and toppled onto them, and in many instances the weight killed them instantly.

In other cases, surrounds bought online were fixed to a plywood or plasterboard backing by householders themselves using only adhesive. As replacing a fire surround is unlikely to require a building warrant or building control approval, such DIY efforts are therefore quite common.

It is vital that professionals take these risks into account when working on a property with a fire surround. For example, building surveyors designing a new installation must be competent to do so and should refer to relevant technical guidance, such as the Stone Federation Great Britain’s data sheet on surrounds.

They should also consult the manufacturer of the surround where possible, making sure that fixing details provided to contractors are clear, and that the substrate has sufficient strength and stability to take the type and weight of fixing. Installation on site should be inspected carefully.

Similarly, building control surveyors should ensure sufficient fixing details are provided in application information where possible. Those inspecting existing buildings with fire surrounds should give due regard to this problem and inspect the feature with care. They should look for gaps along the surround, check how stable it is, and consider the substrate, including the hearth and the base of the surround. If possible, they should also find out who constructed the surround and highlight any risks in their reports, as well as drawing attention to any potential risks.

These simple actions may well save innocent young lives.

Craig Ross MRICS is RICS associate director of the built environment

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