December 21, 2023
Earlier this year, firefighters in the North Carolina city of Charlotte battled a blaze at two apartment buildings that were under construction. The May 18th fire, considered one of the biggest in the city’s history, took the life of two construction workers and destroyed the structures on site.
The blaze also touched off an investigation, not just into the cause but whether state fire and safety codes were being followed on the site. In June, Charlotte fire officials determined several fire codes were ignored and determine the fire originated inside a parking garage trailer that was used to make spray foam insulation and contained multiple heat sources.
The North Carolina Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Division also investigated the fire and adherence to applicable building and fire codes. Department officials recently issued three “serious” violations and fines totaling more than $46,000 against project contractor, MCRT Carolinas Construction. The violations against the contractor include:
- 29 CFR 1926.34(a): Building or structure exits were not so arranged and maintained as to provide free and unobstructed egress from all parts of the building or structure at all times when it was occupied. Investigators determined the interior of Building B only had one available stairway for exit from the seventh floor to the bottom. At the time of the fire, the two employees killed in the fire were about 460 feet from the only stairway exit and were unable to get out of the building, according to the report.
- 29 CFR 1926.65(q)(1): Employer did not develop and implement an emergency response plan to handle anticipated emergencies prior to commencement of emergency response operations. The report noted that a plan was not in place to handle fires beyond the incipient stage and in a structure without fire suppression equipment installed or operational.
- 29 CFR 1926.150€(1): An alarm system was not established by the employer whereby employees on the site could be alerted for emergencies. According to the citation, no alarm system was used to alert employees when the fire started.
We’ve been monitoring the investigation and cooperating with state officials and media reporting on the fire and the safety shortcomings in the aftermath. In fact, Ray O’Brocki, AWC’s Director of Fire Service Relations, was on site immediately after the fire and talked with first responders about the conditions and the trailer that ignited.
For us here at CFSC, what happened in Charlotte is a textbook case of the risks developers, contractors and building officials face when they neglect to implement and enforce basic, fundamental fire safety codes for construction sites.
Moreover, the steps the contractor could have taken to lessen risk, save lives and reduce property damage won’t drive a project like this over budget.
Alarm systems are affordable and effective. Routine monitoring by an on-site fire prevention superintendent appointed by the developer or building owner – also a step required in the code – could have identified early on the heat source risks inside the trailer and the absence of a temporary stairway for workers assigned to upper levels of the project.
As O’Brocki told a television reporter investigating the fire and the code violations, “nobody thinks they’re going to have a fire.”
As the facts bear out, construction site fires do happen. But it’s also true that by following the codes and getting developers, builders and building and fire officials all on the same page, the risk of costly and fatal fires like this one can be mitigated and prevented.