Burning questions about safe storage at home

By Opinion Time of article published May 4, 2021

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By Bertus Visser

Other than the inconvenience of precariously stacked items kept in cluttered garages, there may be hidden dangers in the items you are storing on your premises. In our post-pandemic environment, some businesses have shut down or you may be working from home more often. For whatever reason, some people may be storing work chemicals in home garages or second bedrooms. Even if you own the property where such items are kept, it might not be legal or safe to do so.

Ensuring you adhere to the law is important from an insurance perspective, to ensure you remain covered, so here are some of the burning issues to consider when it comes to safely storing chemicals at home.

The law’s cold shoulder

Properties zoned as ‘residential’ must be used in line with their official zoning. This includes both freestanding homes and townhouses or blocks of flats. It is illegal to conduct a process or activity on a property, when it is not legally zoned for that process.

It is not allowable to store high or moderate risk materials at residential premises. Examples of these materials include volatile, flammable liquids (excluding those for domestic use) and materials used in mixing of other products. If you have brought these onto your residential premises, you are effectively ‘changing’ the occupancy status of the building. Doing so is illegal and your insurance will not cover damage or a loss caused (or exacerbated) by the presence of these items.

Although storage space is usually limited at home, many cases have been documented where houses were rented and the entire residence turned into a factory, especially for the manufacturing of illegal substances. The National Building Regulations do not require portable fire extinguishers in a freestanding home, so this adds to the fire risk if chemicals are stored inappropriately. Changing the occupancy status dramatically increases the fire risk and therefore it’s an aggravating circumstance for the building owner to allow a residential home to be put to a different use.

Conducting high-risk storage and manufacturing inside a unit in a residential block of flats is also highly problematic, as the population density is much higher than in a single, freestanding residence. No matter how you view the problem, aligning to your building’s occupancy status and ensuring safe storage, is a must. To truly prioritise safety, keep a working fire extinguisher on your property, irrespective of whether the law says you should have one or not.

But lockdown isn’t normal

National lockdowns are extraordinary circumstances, and therefore the ‘reasonable man test’ is applied when we consider building usage. An example would be legally setting up a home office. Many houses or flats have a study, which can now serve as an administrative workstation, and using it for this purpose is both ‘reasonable’ and insurable.

However, the Disaster Management Act imposed by President Ramaphosa did not repeal the legislation that deals with zoning, the National Building Regulations, or the Occupational Health and Safety Act. This means these Acts still apply to employers and the work-from-home instructions they give their employees, regardless of lockdown. If an employer instructed an employee to store hazardous chemicals in their garage, for example, this would be considered as an unlawful instruction in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

How do I stay insured?

The best you can do, is to remain within the framework of all relevant legislation, policy wording and the conditions of insurance. It is a legal requirement to record the presence of chemicals found in a burnt residential building, especially if these chemicals were material to the ignition of the fire, or if the chemicals caused greater fire damage to the structure and its contents than would otherwise have been the case. Therefore, it is highly likely any missteps will be identified, and in such a case, any insurance claim is unlikely to be paid.

Getting general home storage right

Keep in mind that many household products, from those that clean the kitchen counter to those made for the swimming pool, could be hazardous. Fire risk exists the moment flammable items are stored too closely together or unsafely. Paint tins are another example that can be disastrous if stored near a flammable item. Therefore, it is important to ensure you store your household and DIY-items safely, too.

It is always best to act within the law. Your insurance adviser can provide valuable guidance, as advice should always be tailored to your unique circumstances. If you are unsure what the law requires you may need to reach out to the relevant authorities to check what is permitted, but be sure to keep evidence of what was clarified too.

Bertus Visser is the Chief Executive of Distribution at PSG Insure


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