Fires and explosions in the workplace result in nearly 200 fatalities and injure some 5,000 workers every year. The resulting costs of such incidents reach more than $2 billion annually. As a result, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has some basic requirements for fire prevention and protection. It also has a number of recommendations that employers should follow to help prevent fire-related injuries and fatalities in the workplace.
OSHA requires all places of employment to have enough suitably located exits to enable all workers to quickly exit in an emergency. It dictates that fire doors must never be blocked or locked when employees are inside a facility. OSHA also requires most employers to provide portable fire extinguishers. There are specific requirements—even on construction sites—about quantity, size and type of extinguishers, depending on the inherent risk of hazards in a given work environment.
If employees are expected to use portable fire extinguishers, OSHA requires employers to establish an educational program, including hands-on training, to familiarize workers with the general principles of fire extinguisher use.
Fire extinguishers must also be properly marked and never locked or hidden. Qualified personnel must inspect fire protection equipment monthly to check operability, and they must keep inspection records. It is also imperative that fire hoses, fire extinguishers, axes, lifelines or any other fire protection devices are never removed or tampered with.
According to attorney Roger Johnson, founding partner of the law firm of Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot LLP, Washington, D.C., “OSHA encourages employers to install fixed extinguishing systems [such as automatic sprinklers] and has standards that employers must follow if these systems are installed.”
Fixed extinguishing systems are among the most effective firefighting tools. Unfortunately, contractors working on construction sites don’t always have this option.
In addition to fire-protection equipment, OSHA indicates that all employers should train workers to identify and be aware of workplace fire hazards, which include ignition sources, combustibles and flammables. Employees should also be made familiar with emergency evacuation procedures. Emergency action plans should describe the routes for workers to use and procedures to follow; account for all evacuated employees; be available for employee review; incorporate procedures for evacuating disabled visitors and employees; address evacuation of employees who stay behind to shut down any critical equipment; include preferred means of alerting employees to a fire emergency; provide for an employee alarm system throughout the workplace; require an alarm system that includes voice communication or sound signals such as bells, whistles, or horns; make the evacuation signal known to employees; ensure emergency training; and require employers to review the plan with new employees and with all employees whenever the plan is changed.
In addition, some basic precautions can help prevent workplace fires. These include properly storing chemicals; keeping flammable or combustible materials away from ignition sources; regularly inspecting chemical containers for leaks or damage; cleaning up flammable liquid spills immediately; inspecting electrical cords; removing equipment with damaged cords from service; avoiding electrical outlet overloads; safely disposing of cigarettes; smoking only in designated areas; cleaning equipment; keeping work spaces and equipment free of oil and dust; making sure you know where fire extinguishers are located and how to use them; participating in fire safety drills; reporting fire or explosion hazards to your employer, including foul odors and damaged electrical equipment or cords; and preventing oil, grease or other flammable materials from accumulating in any setting. Furthermore, combustible items—such as oil-soaked rags, waste and shavings—should be kept in approved metal containers with lids. Such containers must be regularly emptied and kept at least 10 feet away from any combustible parts of buildings. It is important that there are no overgrown weeds or shrubbery around buildings, work sites, substations and storage areas. These areas should be regularly inspected to mitigate the risk of fire.
Flammable liquids, such as gasoline, benzene and lacquer thinner, should be properly stored and marked. Always store combustible and flammable materials at least 3 feet from any heating equipment, at least 2 feet away from the ceiling, and at least 18 inches from the bottom of sprinklers.
Though fires are sometimes unavoidable, following these recommendations and abiding by OSHA’s fire prevention requirements will drastically reduce the risk of workplace fire injuries and fatalities. OSHA has publications, standards, technical assistance and compliance tools to help you, and it offers extensive assistance through workplace consultation, voluntary protection programs, strategic partnerships, alliances, state plans, grants, training and education. For more information regarding these resources, visit www.osha.gov.