Fires and burns are the fifth most common cause of accidental injury and death in the United States. Of these, most victims of fires die from smoke or toxic gas inhalation, not from the flames themselves. Many deaths can be avoided by the proper use of a portable fire extinguisher. These extinguishers are the first line of defense against a small fire. The size and type of fire extinguisher in place is determined by the kind and size of fire they may be called on to extinguish. To be most effective, a portable fire extinguisher must meet the following requirements:

• Approved by a recognized testing lab

• Located where it is readily available for immediate use

• Have sufficient quantity and size to deal with an expected fire

• Operated by trained personnel that can effectively use them

• Inspected and maintained on a regular basis to ensure it is in good operating condition

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) mandates that all portable fire extinguishers be inspected on a monthly basis (NFPA 10, Section 6.2.1) and annually maintained by a licensed fire protection company (NFPA 10, Section 6.3.1). In order to be clear about the differences between an inspection and maintenance, NFPA has developed definitions for these terms specific to portable fire extinguishers. An inspection is a quick check that an extinguisher is available and will operate. The intent of an inspection is to give reasonable assurance that an extinguisher will work when needed. Maintenance is a thorough examination of the extinguisher. Annual maintenance is in place to give the maximum assurance that an extinguisher will work effectively and safely.

The NFPA has specific guidelines for the inspection of portable fire extinguishers. These guidelines have been changed in a newer edition of the NFPA 10: Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers that went into effect Jan. 1, 2004. The updated inspection procedure requires that the following be checked on a monthly basis:

1. Extinguishers are to be in their designated location, secured properly and be the proper type.

2. Extinguishers are not to be obstructed with respect to access or visibility.

3. Pressure-gauge readings or indicators are to be in the operable ranges.

4. Extinguishers are to be mounted correctly.

5. There must be an inspection tag attached to the extinguisher.

Three notable items have been removed from the monthly inspection in the new edition. It no longer is necessary to check the tamper seals; the operating instructions; or for physical damage, corrosion, leakage, clogged nozzles or fullness for stored pressure extinguishers. When an inspection is completed, the inspector initials and dates the tag attached to the extinguisher.

Annual maintenance involves a thorough examination of the extinguisher’s shell and external mechanical parts. It involves a complete disassembly and inspection of each part and replacement of those parts that are worn or damaged. Maintenance also is to be done whenever necessary, for instance, if an inspection reveals damage to the fire extinguisher. The NFPA also requires the following be included in maintenance:

1. All items that are inspected monthly

2. Inspection of the hose and nozzle for cracks, blockage or any other damage

3. Inspection of the extinguisher’s shell for dents, corrosion or other damage

4. Carbon dioxide extinguishers are to be weighed to ensure no weight deviation greater than 10 percent.

When an inspection or maintenance of an extinguisher reveals damage or a defect, corrective measures must be taken immediately. These include replacing the defective extinguisher with one of the same type and equal or greater rating, and the defective extinguisher must be marked “damaged/defective” and removed from service until repairs have been made.

All inspections and maintenance should be documented and records kept. The records should include a listing of information for each fire extinguisher’s location, weight, type and dates of inspections and annual maintenance. The inspection tag attached to each extinguisher should include the dates of the extinguisher’s inspection, its condition and the initials of the person who performed the inspection.

Maintenance and inspections of portable fire extinguishers are the responsibility of the employer as mandated by OSHA (29 CFR 1910.157(a)). Portable fire extinguishers are in place at the workplace for the use of the employees to protect themselves and property from fire and fire-related damage. The correct placement, inspection and maintenance of fire extinguishers can prevent small, manageable fires from becoming large, potentially dangerous ones. One of an employer’s top concerns must be the safety and well-being of the company’s employees, and something as simple as inspecting and maintaining portable fire extinguishers can do quite a lot to keep them safe.

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.