Fire Safety: Protecting Employees and Assets
Workplace Fire Safety – Lessons from Losses
This year, Fire Prevention Week was October 6 -12, and was intended to raise public awareness about the dangers of fire and how to prevent it. Since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday-through-Saturday period during which October 9 falls. October 9th is significant because on that date in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. On that same day in 1871, there was another, less famous fire, known as the “Peshtigo Fire”. At the time, and even today, the Peshtigo Fire was the most devastating forest fire in American history. The fire roared through Northeast Wisconsin, burning down 16 towns, killing 1200 people, and scorching 1.2 million acres before it was done.1
There are several examples of disastrous workplace fires in the history of the United States. In 1911 in New York City, 150 workers were killed during a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There was no fire safety equipment installed in the building and management had locked exit doors, preventing employees from escaping the fire safely.
Eighty years later, in 1991, 25 employees of a chicken processing facility in North Carolina were killed and 54 others were injured when locked exits prevented them from escaping a fire in the building. In addition, the building did not have any windows and no built-in fire protection systems (sprinklers or fire alarms).2 Smaller fires occur daily in workplaces around the country, causing injuries and property damage.
Workplace Fire Safety – OSHA Requirements
Current OSHA standards require employers to provide proper exits, fire fighting equipment, and employee training to prevent fire deaths and injuries in the workplace.
OSHA 29 CFR 1910.36 – Means of Egress, requires that a building provide an adequate number of exits that are clearly visible and free and clear of obstructions. The means of egress needs to provide for separate and remote access so that no one fire would be expected to block all exits at the same time. No locks or fastening devices may be used to prevent free escape from the inside of any building. The means of egress and exits should lead occupants to a safe area outside the building in a public area, such as a street or parking lot.
OSHA 29 CFR 1910.38 – Emergency Action Plan, outlines the elements of a plan that employees should follow in the event of an emergency, such as fire in the building. Among other items, the plans must include emergency escape procedures, a process to account for all employees after an evacuation, a preferred method for reporting fires and emergencies, and rescue and medical duties for any employees assigned to do them.
OSHA 29 CFR 1910.157 – Portable Fire Extinguishers, provides guidance on the selection, placement, maintenance, inspection, and testing of fire extinguishers in the workplace. Fire extinguishers can be very powerful fire protection tools in the hands of trained employees. They can also be very dangerous for improperly trained employees. If you have extinguishers in your workplace for use by employees, make sure that employees are properly trained in the general principles of fire extinguisher use and the hazards involved with incipient-stage fire fighting. That training should be provided at the time of employment and at least on an annual basis.
OSHA 29 CFR 1910.158 through 1910.163 – Fixed Extinguishing Systems, outlines the design criteria, installation, maintenance, testing and alarm criteria that should be followed for sprinkler systems, dry chemical systems, gaseous systems, water spray/foam systems and standpipe and hose stations.
Additional guidance on fire protection equipment design, installation, inspection, maintenance and testing can be found in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes and standards. More information about NFPA standards can be found at www.nfpa.org.
Common Fire Hazards & Controls
The following is an overview of common fire hazards found in the workplace. Agencies should inspect their areas periodically to identify and correct these types of hazards.
- Electrical hazards – Modern offices have large numbers of computers, fax machines, copiers, printers, paper shredders, and other office equipment which could lead to overloaded circuits. The use of extension cords should be discouraged, and surge protectors should be used to protect sensitive electronics like computers. Inspect plugs and cords for exposed wires, missing prongs, loose wires and other signs of wear or abuse. Remove and replace any damaged cords. Avoid plugging more than one surge protector into an outlet to prevent overloaded circuits. Heat producing products like coffee pots, hot plates and toasters should be located in safe areas and away from combustibles like paper, boxes and trashcans. Portable heaters under desks should be discouraged but, if they are used, they should be checked frequently for safe installation and location away from combustibles.
- Hazardous Materials Storage & Handling – Flammable and combustible liquids are found in various quantities in many workplaces. Common examples include cleaning fluids, paint, solvents, and fuel. Flammable and combustible liquids should be stored in sealed containers, with tight fitting lids to prevent spillage. The containers should be stored in a safe area, away from sources of ignition, and protected from spills or punctures. Larger quantities of flammable liquids should be stored in appropriate cabinets or storage rooms designed for that application.
- Smoking – Just because you might have a “smoke-free” building does not guarantee that you will have a fire-free building. Designated smoking areas should be located away from the accumulation of ordinary combustible materials and should be provided with proper smoking material receptacles. Excellent housekeeping in these areas is very important to reduce the accumulation of combustible material. Supervisory personnel should periodically inspect for signs of smoking in unauthorized areas, such as cigarette butts on floors, in stairwells and in restrooms.
- Trash / Housekeeping – Filing cabinets should be used to store and protect important documents from damage by fire. Work in process should be stored in drawers or cabinets overnight and steps should be taken to limit the amount of loose paper stored on desks and in cubicles. Waste material should be disposed of in proper waste containers. The waste containers should be emptied regularly to prevent an accumulation of trash, which is fuel for an accidental fire. Hallways and aisles should not be obstructed in any way to allow for quick evacuation in an emergency. Exit doors should not be propped open, and the exit way should not be a location for storage of unnecessary materials.
- Holiday Decorations – Decorations should not be hung from sprinkler system components or fire detection equipment. Only UL listed electrical equipment should be used to assure safe operation. Holiday lights should be inspected for wear and tear before use, and any damaged items removed from service and replaced. Limit the number of extension cords used and use a remote switch whenever possible for safer operation. Be sure holiday decorations do not block emergency equipment (i.e. fire extinguishers and fire alarm pull boxes) or exit doors.
- Construction/Renovation Work – A responsible employee should be assigned to monitor contractors working at your facility for fire safety. There should be daily inspections for housekeeping to prevent the accumulation of waste material. Require a fire watch for any cutting/welding work. The fire watch should consist of a worker trained in the proper use of fire extinguishers and equipped with one, stationed in the area of any hot work. The worker should monitor the hot work area for at least 30 minutes after the work is completed to prevent fires from smoldering material. Hazardous materials should be stored in appropriate non-combustible containers with tight fitting lids away from ordinary combustibles.
Fire Protection Equipment Inspections
Sprinkler systems and fire alarms need to be inspected, tested and maintained regularly to insure their proper operation in the event of a fire. Employees who are knowledgeable about the systems should be assigned to complete timely inspections. The assigned employees should be trained in proper inspection techniques and documentation. The inspection process should include verifying that system valves are open and have not been damaged or vandalized. Fire department connections should be free and clear of obstructions and fire hydrants should be readily accessible. Water flow tests should be completed to verify that alarms work properly and in a timely fashion. Fire extinguishers should be inspected to insure they are in the proper location, and are full and ready for service.
Emergency Action Plans & Fire Drills
After you have taken all possible steps to find and remove fire hazards and insure that installed fire protection equipment is in service, the last line of defense in a fire emergency is the emergency plan for your facility.
- The plan should include steps to take when employees discover a fire. There should be a sequence of steps that employees follow, starting with sounding the alarm. The first warning may be initiated by activating an alarm system, making an announcement on a public address system or calling a front desk or control room by radio or telephone.
- Phone numbers for fire and emergency services should be clearly posted throughout the workplace and especially near telephones. Be sure to indicate any numbers needed to obtain an outside line. Just dialing 911 from a business phone may not work; it is often necessary to dial a 9 first to get an outside line.
- Be sure to post proper procedures for your phone system and train employees on those procedures.
- Be sure employees understand the importance of specifically identifying their location in multi-story building or large multi-building complexes when calling emergency services. After dialing 911, they should give the dispatcher complete information about the name of the building they are in, the floor where they are located, and any other necessary location information. This is especially important on college campuses, in high rise buildings and at large open areas like state parks.
- Escape routes, exit doors and assembly areas should be pre-planned and shown on maps in the facility.
- Develop a means for accounting for all personnel after a building evacuation.
- Practice emergency response and evacuation procedures periodically by conducting fire drills for the employees.
- Be sure to include emergency procedures in the orientation of new or transferred employees so they are trained properly when they initially report for work in your facility.
1 National Fire Protection Association, The History of Fire Prevention Week http://www.nfpa.org
2 Emergency Response & Research Institute, Fire Violations Kill Twenty-five In Chicken Plant http://www.emergency.com/nc-fire.htm
NFPA Online: Team Up for Fire Safety. Fire Prevention Week October 6-12, 2002. (n.d) Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.nfpa.org
Emergency Response and Research Institute. (1991, September 4). Fire Violations Kill Twenty-five in Chicken Plant. Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.emergency.com/nc-fire.htm
OSHA Safety and Health Topics: Fire Safety (28 January 2002). Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.osha-slc.gov
OSHA Standards CFR1910.36 Means of Egress General requirements. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.osha.gov
OSHA Standards CFR1910.38 Employee emergency plans and fire prevention plans (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.osha.gov
OSHA Standards CFR1910 Subpart E appendix – Means of Egress. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.osha.gov
OSHA Standards CFR1910.157 Portable fire extinguishers. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.osha.gov
OSHA Standards CFR1910.159 Automatic Sprinkler Systems. (n.d.) Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.osha.gov
OSHA Standards CFR1910.164 Fire Detection Systems. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2002 from http://www.osha.gov
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