Three elements are required in combination to ignite a fire and keep it burning – the fire triangle – ignition, fuel and oxygen. Although each element of the fire triangle is equally as important, today we will be looking at ignition sources, particularly the most common sources of ignition in the workplace.

What is an Ignition Source?

An ignition source is a thing or occurrence that has the potential to produce enough heat energy to ignite a flammable material or substance. Though many workplace items, materials and substances have the potential to catch fire, some industries are more abundant than others: industries which rely on processing flammable gases, liquids, materials and metals are far more likely to create a flammable environment than an office building or pet shop, for example.

Some workplaces have easily identifiable ignition sources – such as a furnace or soldering iron, however, other sources may not be so obvious, placing extra importance on the need to conduct thorough fire risk assessments. Those will help you identify potential sources of ignition, as well as any behaviour that may increase the risk of fire. 

Assessing Fire Risks

Fire risk assessment is a critical aspect of ensuring the safety and well-being of individuals and properties. This process involves a systematic examination of the factors that may contribute to the occurrence of a fire and its potential consequences. Effective fire risk assessment not only helps in identifying and mitigating risks but also ensures compliance with legal requirements and standards.

1. Identifying Those at Risk

Identifying individuals at risk is a fundamental step in fire risk assessment. This includes considering the occupants of a building or space, such as employees, residents, visitors, and those with special needs. Vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, young children, and people with disabilities, require special attention. Additionally, consideration must be given to the specific activities conducted within a space and their potential impact on fire safety.

2. Identifying Causes

Understanding the causes of fires is crucial in preventing their occurrence. Common causes include electrical faults, faulty appliances, human error, arson, and flammable materials. Assessors need to examine the building’s design, construction, and maintenance to identify potential fire hazards. Special attention should be paid to areas where ignition sources and combustible materials are in close proximity.

3. Evaluating Risk

Once potential fire hazards are identified, it is essential to evaluate the level of risk associated with each. This involves considering the likelihood of a fire occurring and the potential consequences if it does. The evaluation should take into account factors such as the building’s fire resistance, evacuation procedures, and the effectiveness of fire suppression systems. This step helps prioritise actions and resources for risk mitigation.

4. Creating a Plan

Based on the risk assessment, a comprehensive fire safety plan should be developed. This plan should outline preventive measures, emergency procedures, and evacuation routes. It should also include provisions for training occupants on fire safety, regular fire drills, and maintenance of fire safety equipment. The plan must be tailored to the specific needs and characteristics of the building or space.

5. Recording

Documentation is a crucial aspect of fire risk assessment. A record should be maintained detailing the findings of the assessment, the identified risks, and the measures taken to mitigate them. This record serves as a reference for future assessments and is essential for demonstrating compliance with legal requirements.

6. Reviewing

Regular reviews of the fire risk assessment are necessary to ensure its ongoing relevance and effectiveness. Changes in the occupancy, building layout, or activities conducted within a space may necessitate updates to the assessment. Regular reviews also allow for the identification of emerging risks and the adjustment of preventive measures accordingly.

5 Common Fire Hazards in the Workplace

There are many common items and behaviours that can become fire hazards at work if employees don’t have the appropriate fire training. Some of the most common workplace fire hazards include:

  • Combustible Materials at Work – From piling up paper and cardboard to using hazardous substances at work, combustible materials can be found in any workplace and should be handled with care to avoid fires. 
  • Faulty Equipment – Mechanical or electrical equipment can malfunction, overheat and cause a fire in the workplace. This is why it’s important that all equipment is regularly inspected, maintained and serviced. 
  • Clutter – Dust and dirt can accumulate over time leading to malfunctions of the equipment in the office, causing a fire. Also, clutter can be obstructive and dangerous in case you need to evacuate during a fire emergency.
  • Human Error – Using equipment incorrectly and without following the safety procedures is a common fire hazard. This is why appropriate training is needed for all members of staff. 

Arson – Unfortunately, arson is one of the most common causes of fires in the workplace in the UK, so business owners are advised to take security measures to protect their business premises.

Four Most Common Types of Ignition Sources in the Workplace

Within the workplace, there are four common types of ignition sources to look out for:

  1. Chemical
  2. Electrical
  3. Mechanical
  4. Thermal

We will explain them in more detail below.

Chemical Sources of Ignition

Although the fire triangle is the typical reaction required to cause a fire, you must also be aware of chemical ignitions, which are caused by exothermic reactions, such as exothermic polymerisation or a reaction between sodium metals and air.

Electrical Sources of Ignition 

Even though electrical ignition sources are some of the most commonly considered sources of ignition, they are, perhaps, the most misunderstood. Typically, fires caused by electrical devices ignite via sparks from power outlets or exposed cables or an excessive buildup of electrostatic current.

Some common sources of electrical sources of ignition include:

  • Sparks
  • Electrical faults
  • Electrical cooking equipment
  • Static electricity
  • Overloaded electrical circuits
  • Electric heaters
  • Overclocked electrical equipment

Mechanical Sources of Ignition

Perhaps the most overlooked source of ignition, mechanical equipment in the workplace presents a fire hazard from excessive frictional heat, fracturing materials or sparks – particularly dangerous to businesses who store, handle or use flammable liquids and gases.

Common mechanical sources of ignition include:

  • Excessive friction
  • Sparks 
  • Overheating machinery or peripheral equipment
  • Radiated heat

Thermal Sources of Ignition

These sources of ignition can vary in size and scope: any item that gives off heat via a flame or directly hot surface can fall under this category. Examples include:

  • Blowtorches
  • Cigarettes
  • Cigarette lighters
  • Gas/electrical hobs/stoves
  • Glowing embers
  • Electric lamps
  • Soldering irons

Common Fuel and Oxygen Sources 

Similarly, there are also risks from fuel and oxygen sources within workplaces. These include:

Fuel Sources

  • Flammable Liquids: solvents, fuels and cleaning agents
  • Combustible Gases: natural gas, propane and hydrogen
  • Dust and Particulate Matter: wood, metal and flour dust
  • Combustible Materials: paper, cardboard and fabrics

Oxygen Sources

  • Ambient Air in the Workplace
  • Oxygen Tanks or Cylinders


To help mitigate risk risks, places of work should look to reduce the amount of ignition, fuel and oxygen sources, within reason. 

Ignition Sources

  • Regular Equipment Maintenance: Conduct routine inspections and maintenance of electrical and mechanical equipment to identify and address potential issues.
  • Use Non-Sparking Tools: Choose tools and equipment designed to minimise sparks, especially in areas where flammable materials are present.
  • Control Open Flames: Implement strict controls for welding and other hot work activities, ensuring proper permits and safety measures are in place.
  • Static Electricity Control: Use anti-static equipment and flooring in areas where static electricity poses a risk. Grounding equipment can also help dissipate static charges.
  • Hot Surface Insulation: Insulate and guard hot surfaces to prevent accidental contact and reduce the risk of ignition.

Fuel Sources

  • Proper Storage and Handling: Store flammable liquids and gases in approved containers and cabinets, away from ignition sources.
  • Dust Control: Implement dust control measures, such as ventilation systems and regular cleaning, to minimise the accumulation of combustible dust.
  • Limit Combustible Materials: Minimise the presence of combustible materials in work areas. Replace them with non-combustible alternatives when possible.

Oxygen Sources

  • Control Ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation systems are in place to control the concentration of oxygen and prevent the accumulation of flammable gases.
  • Use Oxygen Monitors: Install oxygen monitors in areas where oxygen levels need to be closely monitored, especially in confined spaces.
  • Proper Storage of Oxygen Cylinders: Store oxygen cylinders in well-ventilated areas away from potential ignition sources and flammable materials.
  • Training and Awareness: Provide training to employees about the risks associated with oxygen, fuel, and ignition sources, emphasising the importance of safe work practices.

In addition, it is critical to ensure that all unnecessary naked flames, heat sources and erratic chemicals are removed from the workplace or safely stored from potential ignition sources and locations. And, workplace smoking should be completely forbidden within all enclosed spaces and buildings to mitigate the potential of fire caused by smoking.

Implementing these measures can significantly reduce the risk of fire in the workplace and enhance overall safety for employees. Regular safety audits and continuous training are essential to maintaining a safe working environment.

Common Fire Hazards to Consider

To correctly identify potential sources of ignition, you should also be aware of what commonly fuels fires at the workplace. 

Electrical Devices

Commonly found within the workplace, electrical devices are often a source of ignition and fuel for fires. Whether the fire is caused by extension cables that have been overloaded through daisy chains or exposed wiring of a damaged power cord, the danger of fire remains the same and all devices within the workplace should be assessed regularly to mitigate the risk of fire.

PAT testing is used to determine and identify that electrical equipment and devices are in a safe-to-use condition and free from the potential to cause harm or contribute to the ignition of a fire. Although PAT testing of electrical devices is not a legal requirement, workplaces are required to ensure compliance with fire safety regulations, as faulty equipment is one of the top 5 common causes of fire at work.

Combustible and Flammable Materials

Many workplaces will use and store highly reactive chemicals and/or flammable materials: in such situations, it is critical to store such potential fuel sources in secure, fire-resistant locations and away from ignition sources.

When relocating such materials, extreme care must be taken to avoid chemical reactions or ignition sources: unless necessary for their function, which should then be conducted in highly controlled conditions, following stringent safety processes.

Reducing Risks of Fire to Staff

Important to workplace fire safety is the training and education. For example, fundamentally making it known that the blocking of walkways and fire exits is absolutely forbidden and that there is zero tolerance for such behaviour. You should also appoint and provide training for fire marshals whose duties include doing visual inspections of the workplace for potential hazards.

Fire Detection and Warning 

To complement the essential components of a comprehensive fire emergency evacuation plan (FEEP), the incorporation of reliable fire detection and warning equipment is paramount in ensuring workplace safety. While a well-defined FEEP establishes the groundwork for evacuation procedures, the effectiveness of such plans heavily relies on timely and accurate fire detection.

The presence of fire detection systems, including smoke detectors and fire alarms, serves as an early warning mechanism crucial for prompt evacuation initiation. These systems contribute to the overall preparedness by swiftly alerting occupants to the presence of smoke or fire, facilitating a quick and organised response.

Furthermore, functional and well-maintained fire doors play a pivotal role in containment efforts. Equipped with fire-resistant properties, these doors act as barriers, impeding the spread of fire. It is imperative to keep these doors closed when not in use to uphold their effectiveness in preventing the rapid escalation of a fire incident.

In tandem with the FEEP’s emphasis on clear escape routes and designated fire exits, the integration of visible signage aids occupants in swiftly navigating to safety. The dual approach of both fire detection and warning equipment and the established evacuation plan ensures a synchronised and efficient response, ultimately safeguarding lives and minimising potential damages.

Reducing the Risk of Arson

Reducing arson risk in the workplace involves a multifaceted approach. Implement robust security measures, including cameras, access controls, and proper lighting. Train employees on security awareness and fire safety, emphasising early reporting of suspicious activities. Install and maintain smoke detectors and fire alarms, and secure potential ignition sources.

Externally, maintain clear landscaping, store flammable materials properly, and foster positive community relationships. Develop and regularly practice evacuation plans, ensuring employees are familiar with firefighting equipment. Conduct thorough background checks on hires, monitor employee behaviour, and encourage community vigilance.

Secure potential ignition sources and maintain comprehensive insurance coverage. Regularly review and update security measures to adapt to evolving risks. Periodically conduct drills to test emergency preparedness.

To keep a safe working environment for employees, it is critical to carry out regular fire risk assessments to locate all potential fire risks and new sources of ignition.


Can friction be a source of ignition?

Yes, friction can be described as a potential ignition source. For example, grinding two pieces of wood against each other to ignite a campfire. 

Can paint be a source of ignition?

Yes. paint is classified as a flammable liquid and can be the source of ignition, due to the flammable vapours it releases, which in contact with the air can cause ignition or explosion. 

How would you describe a potential ignition source?

Any source of heat that can heat up enough to cause ignition or explosion and start a fire can be described as a source of ignition.

What are examples of the ignition sources in the workplace?

Examples of ignition sources in the workplace include:

  • Exposed wires
  • Malfunctioning electrical equipment
  • Hot surfaces such as heat plates, furnaces and heaters 
  • Combustible materials, such as varnishes, waxes, paints and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)
  • Static electrical sparks 
  • Human error (especially when using mechanical equipment)

Is a potential ignition source described as a risk, a danger or a hazard during a risk assessment?

In a fire risk assessment context, a potential source of ignition is classified as a fire hazard.

Can you give an example of a potential source of heat for a fire?

Sources of heat that can cause a fire include electrical sparks, cigarettes, heaters, matches, lighters, damaged electrical wires, stoves, a magnifying glass and more.

Can you give an example of a potential source of fuel for a fire?

Sources of fuel for a fire can be classed in the following categories:

  • Flammable solids (paper, textile, plastic, wood, etc)
  • Flammable liquids (LPG, diesel, gasoline, paint, etc)
  • Flammable gases (propane, methane, butane, etc)
  • Flammable metals (magnesium, lithium, calcium, etc)
  • Electricity
  • Cooking fats and oils 

Is paper an oxygen source for a fire?

No, paper is combustible solid material which serves as a fuel source for a fire. 

What are the four elements of fire?

The four elements of fire include the three elements of the fire triangle – fuel, heat and oxygen, completed by the fourth element – chemical reaction.