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28 February 2024

Home fires to keep cold away can be fatal; 4 die

By V M Sathish

As a cold wave sweeps the Gulf region, residents, especially workers living in shanty labour camps, are resorting to many dangerous short-cuts to withstand the cold

Speaking to Emirates 24|7, doctors and fire and safety experts said it is dangerous to light fires using parts of broken wooden boxes, plywood or other unknown lightwood materials because such fires in a closed environment can give off poisonous gases that can lead to death. Smoke from fires made with hard woods are usually not poisonous but in a closed environment it can also be fatal, they said.

Four Indian workers died in Hamad Town in Manama, Bahrain on Sunday night after they went to sleep, after keeping alive a fire they made in a paint drum to keep away the cold.  They were suffocated by poisonous gases inside their small room near an automobile garage.

The four who died are Babu Kallamala(45), N M Nakulan (53), Priyesh (27), T Lalu (37) and a fifth, Sunil Sashidharan, is serious and undergoing treatment at BDF Hospital, Manama.

Before going to sleep at 9 pm, these workers of an automobile garage made a temporary fire inside a big paint drum but the smoke from the fire filled the room. One was found dead near the door, apparently while trying to open it, the only source of ventilation.  The other three died in their beds in their room. Their death was discovered after their employer started enquiring when they did not turn up for work the next day.

“I have seen many workers warming themselves around fires in the open space between labour camps in Sharjah, Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah. This is a very dangerous practice and in the past this has caused fires and other accidents,” said a fire expert.

“It is a common practice among workers in some labour camps, especially in remote areas, to light fires in the open and sometimes even in their rooms. The firewood that they use to make camp fires are not hard wood and come from remains of wooden boxes and plywood, which are made of light wood and can give off poisonous gases. If such fires are kept alive, while the residents sleep in a closed room, it can be very dangerous. Such fires can not only cause fires but also suffocate the inmates because the gases are poisonous and there is no ventilation in many accommodations because they have air conditioners installed,” said Seethi Padiyath, general manager, Safety Marine Services, a Sharjah-based safety company.

He said keeping room and vehicle heaters on can also be dangerous because children cannot withstand such heat and if the temperature goes above 50 to 60 degrees, the inmates can suffer burns and children can even die.

“Even the heater inside vehicles should not be kept indefinitely on because if the temperature goes above 50 degrees, it can be fatal. Even if it is cold outside, the vehicle can burn and harm the driver,” he added.

He said many cases of fire and suffocation have been reported from various parts of the UAE during previous winters because workers and residents are unaware of the dangers of such short cuts. As the climate here is hot for most part of the year, residents are yet to become familiar with ways of keeping warm. Some workers light fires, drink alcohol and even make their own brew using locally available fruits and other materials. These short-cuts can be especially dangerous if the workers are drunk. Residents and labourers have died in Ras Al Khaimah in the past because of such short cuts.

In well-regulated labour camps, people are not allowed to bring in inflammable materials or firewood to light fires.

“We have about 3500 workers in our labour camps but we have strict security. Workers are not allowed to bring in their own heaters or other heavy materials. Workers use strong blankets to keep away the cold,” said the manager of a leading labour camp in Al Qouz, Dubai.

Sale of old and used winter wear are also gaining popularity in labour camps because many workers cannot afford a new blanket.