Too Hot to Handle: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Hot Works Conditions (But Were Afraid to Ask)

11 January 2024
By Alex Rosenfield


Hot Works Conditions are a staple of contractors’ public liability policies. They require certain precautions to be taken before, during and after the carrying out of Hot Work activities, each of which are designed to reduce the risk of a fire breaking out.

The language and requirements of Hot Works Conditions vary across the market, and difficult questions often arise as to whether a particular activity engages the precautions, the meaning of “combustible”, and whether the precautions are even capable of being satisfied.

This short article considers some of the key issues.

The nature of Hot Works Conditions

Hot Works Conditions are usually written as “Conditions Precedent to Liability”. Those are fundamental terms of insurance contracts and must be complied with strictly before an insurer can become liable for a particular claim.

In some cases, the condition might not actually include the words “Condition Precent to Liability”, but it will have that effect if the consequences of breaching it are made clear. So, the condition might say: “We [the insurer] will not pay a claim unless you will have complied with the following …”.

The Courts generally treat conditions precedent to liability as onerous or draconian terms. This means that it is incumbent on the insurer to spell out any such terms clearly so that the insured knows precisely what they have to do – or else they are not going to be bound by them.

The meaning of “Hot Work”

Hot Work Conditions often define the term “Hot Work” precisely. Typically, that will cover any activity which uses or produces an open flame, or any other activity which could ignite any combustible or flammable material.

While that may seem relatively straightforward, the question of whether the precautions apply may turn on whether the condition refers to activities that apply heat, or which merely generate it. For example, suppose a contractor wishes to use an angle grinder and the definition of ‘Hot Works’ encompasses activities that only “apply heat”. Strictly speaking, a grinder does not apply heat – it merely generates it – and so the precautions would arguably not apply. Conversely, if the contractor wished to use a gas torch, then that would engage the precautions, as that activity clearly does apply heat.

Actions required in respect of combustible materials

Hot Works Conditions always include a hierarchy of steps which, before starting work, the insured must take in relation to combustible materials. Those are that the insured must:

  1. Examine the area of works for combustible materials; and
  2. If the materials are moveable, move them a certain distance away from the Hot Works.
  3. If the materials are not moveable, cover them with non-combustible materials.

Taking each of the above in turn:

The examination

The requirement to carry out a pre-work examination of the area of work will often be highly circumscribed. For example, it may require a specific individual in the insured’s organisation (usually the fire watcher or ‘responsible person’) to conduct the examination at a particular time, and in a particular way.

On the other hand, the requirement may contain no stipulation as to how the property should be examined, or by whom. In such a case, it would arguably be open to an insured to delegate the examination to someone outside of the insured’s organisation, or to carry out the inspection by way of a desktop study or video link.

In any given case, the insured must satisfy itself that the examination was comprehensive, and that it acted reasonably in carrying out the examination in a particular way.

What does “combustible” mean in this context?

As a matter of science, almost any material is combustible if heat is applied at a sufficiently high temperature. However, “combustible” has to be construed in the context of a commercial insurance policy, and with regard to its natural and ordinary meaning.

The Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd Ed.) defines “combustible” as “able to catch fire and burn easily” and other dictionaries give similar definitions. Accordingly, it is that meaning – not its scientific meaning – to which a Court must have regard. That is supported by the decision in Wheeldon Brothers v Millenium Insurance [2018] EWHC 834 where the Court held, when referring to the term “combustible”:

“If the underwriters had intended “combustible” to have a meaning other than that understood by a layperson interpreting the Policy, it was for underwriters to make that express in the Policy. I find that “combustible” as used in the Policy is the meaning which would be understood by a layperson. To take the example given by the experts, a layperson would not consider diamonds and metals to be “combustible.”

The question then arises as to whether “combustible” should also be interpreted with regard to the specific hot works being undertaken. For example, a gas torch is a more potent source of ignition than an angle grinder, and a given material may be readily combustible in the presence of a gas torch, but not in the presence of a spark from an angle grinder.

In our view, therefore, the nature of the hot work activity should be taken into account when considering whether a material is combustible (and therefore whether it should be moved or covered), as that makes more commercial sense in the context of an insurance policy.

Finally, an insured must have reasonable knowledge that a material is combustible in order to take the required precautions. So, an insured would be expected to know that an oil-soaked rag is combustible and so would need to move it. By contrast, if a non-combustible material had secretly been doused in petrol without the insured knowing (nor being reasonably capable of discovering that), the obligation to remove or cover it would not apply.

The requirement to move or cover up combustible materials

Several points arise on the construction of this requirement.

Firstly, while it may go without saying, the requirement to move combustible materials applies only to materials that are within a certain distance of the hot work activities (usually 6 or 10 metres). Therefore, there is no requirement to remove or cover material which is further away.

Secondly, the requirement to cover up combustible material would apply only to material that is not being worked upon. That is supported by the decision in Cornhill Insurance PLC v D E Stamp Felt Roofing Contractors Ltd [2002] EWCA Civ 395, in which the Court agreed with the Insured roofing contractor that it would be “absurd” to cover up a plywood deck of a roof over which roofing felt was to be laid.

Finally, consideration must be given to whether it is even possible to remove or cover the combustible material at all. In Milton v Brit Insurance [2016] Lloyd’s Rep IR 192, in which the Court considered the meaning of a condition which required insured premises not to be ‘left unattended’, it was held that the condition “clearly only applies to the extent possible, without requiring the insured to fulfil an impossible obligation … it would make no commercial sense for the clause to require the insured to do something which was impossible …”

So, imagine a roof consisted of two layers, the inner layer of which was made of combustible timber and was inaccessible. In that situation, it would plainly not be possible to cover the timber layer, and so, applying Milton, an Insurer cannot decline a claim on the basis that the requirement has not been satisfied.

The requirement to take reasonable precautions

Hot Works Conditions frequently include a requirement that the insured takes “reasonable precautions to prevent damage”. It is well-established principle of insurance law that an insurer can only rely on a reasonable precautions clause where it shows recklessness by the insured. In particular, in Fraser v Furman [1967] 1 WLR 898, the Court held that it must be “shown affirmatively that the failure to take precautions … was done recklessly, that is to say with actual recognition of the danger and not caring whether or not that danger was averted”.

So, acting carelessly will not be sufficient. The requirement is that the insured must be reckless and not care about its conduct.

Other precautions

As stated above, the requirements of Hot Works Conditions vary across the market but will typically include a requirement to appoint a fire watcher, to have a fire extinguisher available for immediate use, and to carry out a thorough post-work fire check for a period of no less than 30 minutes.

A detailed examination of those requirements is beyond the scope of this note, but whether an insured has satisfied the requirements is likely to be fact sensitive.

The consequences of breaching a Hot Works Condition 

If an insured breaches a particular term of a Hot Works Condition, then, applying Section 11 of the Insurance Act 2015 (“Section 11”), Insurers will still have to pay the claim if the insured can show that any breach could not have increased the risk of damage occurring in the circumstances in which it occurred.

Section 11 is intended to prevent an insurer from relying on a failure to comply with a policy term where the loss that occurred is unrelated to the breach. So, it would prevent an insurer from relying on a breach of a burglar alarm where the loss is caused by falling debris from an aircraft. While that example is relatively straightforward, the position is more complicated in the context of breaches of hot works conditions and fire, because there is a link between the term in question and type of loss.

There are currently no authorities on the meaning and effect of Section 11, and its precise operation is a matter of legal debate. In particular, it is unclear whether the test requires there to be a causal link between the breach and the loss, or not.

Absent any authorities, it is open to an insured to argue that Section 11 that the test is one of causation. So, if an insured could establish that a fire started as a result of a discarded cigarette for example, and notwithstanding the fact that it had not complied with the Hot Works Condition strictly, it would be open to argue that compliance made no difference, and that Insurers must pay the claim.


The consequences of Hot Work activities can be devastating for a contractor, which may face large claims against them if property is damaged or destroyed. While public liability insurance is intended to protect an insured against that risk, insureds nevertheless need to be fully aware of their obligations under these conditions, and the consequences which could follow in the event of a non-compliance.

Alex Rosenfield is an Associate Partner at Fenchurch Law