Throughout US history, there have been near-legendary workplace fires. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City caused 150 deaths. As recently as 1991, a fire at the Imperial Foods poultry processing plant in North Carolina caused 25 worker deaths and 49 injuries. Tragically, these deaths and injuries could have been prevented. Locked fire exits and faulty or inadequate fire extinguishing systems allowed the fires to rage out of control. The National Safety Council estimates that, in 1988, workplace fires led to $3.1 billion in losses and more than 360 fatalities. One of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s prime concerns is preventing fires, thus reducing injuries and fatalities. This is done through job site inspections that ensure standards dealing with fire safety (29 CFR Part 1910 Subparts E and L and Part 1926 Subparts C and F) are being followed.

Employers are responsible for training their workers on potential fire hazards in their workplace and what to do in case of a fire. Much of what the employees are to do in case of an emergency are covered in the employer’s emergency action plan. This will determine if the employees are to evacuate or stay and fight a fire. Either way, the employer must train the employees on how to escape the work site or supply the workers with training and equipment to fight the fire. Whether employees are to fight or flee, OSHA standards require work sites to be equipped with proper emergency exits, fire fighting equipment, and emergency plans to prevent fire-related deaths and injuries.

The evacuation portion of the fire safety plan should be reviewed periodically to ensure exits are kept clear and available in case of emergency. During the review process, it may be helpful to develop a punch list of the plan, which may include the following:

• All workers at the site need to know how to respond to a fire alarm signal.

• Evacuation procedures should mirror any changes in the physical layout of the work site and any changes in the fire alarm system.

• Any device used to signal the need for an evacuation should be audible above normal background noise at the site. The alarm also should be unique to signal a fire and be recognized by all working at the site.

• When possible, at least two escape routes should be provided.

• All escape routes must be kept clear at all times.

• Fire doors must be kept closed and clear for evacuation.

• If work is to be done at the site at night, the site needs to be fitted with the appropriate emergency lighting.

• When employees are working in isolated areas (mechanical or electrical rooms) provisions need to be made to alert them to any emergency situation.

There are two ways to look at the problem of fire safety: protection and prevention. Protection helps to ensure a minor event—e.g., a small fire in a trash can—doesn’t burn down the whole building. Protection is included in the portion of the emergency plan that deals with evacuation and fighting a fire already in progress. Prevention, on the other hand, sees that the fire is never started in the first place. There are aspects of fire prevention that are included in an employer’s safety program that aren’t specific to fire at all. Good housekeeping at the job site is a good safety practice that also helps prevent fire. During the construction process, any scrap lumber should be cleared out of the work area at regular intervals. If there is no wood lying around to catch fire, there won’t be a fire, or it will be more easily contained. Good cleaning habits also include flammable and combustible materials. These materials should be properly stored or cleaned if there is a spill.

Another aspect of fire prevention involves employee training. It is important to include housekeeping and the value of good work habits when training employees. If trained to include smart thinking about potentially dangerous situations, workers can help to keep themselves safe and prevent fires. For example, when welding occurs at a job site, a close eye should be kept on the area where this hot work occurred for several hours after the work is complete. This will help prevent an injury from the hot surface as well as prevent a potential fire.

Regular work site inspections also will help prevent a fire from starting. These inspections help keep workers alert to their work habits and work areas and keep their attention on periodically removing any flammable materials.

Ideally, by focusing on fire prevention, fewer fires will start, taking some of the stress off fire protection. It is far easier and more cost effective to keep a fire from starting than to try to put it out and clean up afterward. Experts from Factory Mutual, a group of property and casualty insurance companies and safety engineering companies, state that close to 60 percent of fires and 75 percent of fire-related property damage could be avoided through preventive actions, including preventive maintenance, frequent inspection and testing of equipment. Fire prevention has many benefits for both employers and employees, including saving money, equipment and lives by not allowing a fire to start in the first place.

KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 or dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.