Are you training your employees as frequently as required? Have you trained them to know when they should not attempt to fight a fire because it is too large?

Fire Extinguisher ABCs

Are you training your employees as frequently as required? Have you designated employees who are expected to stay behind? Have you trained them to know when they should not attempt to fight a fire because it is too large?

Fire departments emphasize that employees should not fight a fire that is larger than a desk in size, one that is producing black smoke, or when its flames are reaching the ceiling. Also, they should never use a fire extinguisher before the local fire department has been called via 911 and they know that the building is being evacuated.

When fire extinguishers are provided for employees' use, OSHA requires the employer to educate them on the general principles of extinguisher use and the hazards involved in fighting an incipient stage fire—a fire that is limited to the original material ignited, is contained (such as in a wastebasket), and has not spread to other materials.1 The extinguisher training must be provided when employees are first hired and then annually thereafter. Employers who have been designated to use fire fighting equipment in the emergency action plan are to be trained when first given that assignment and then annually after that. (29 CFR 1910.157(g)(3) and 29 CFR 1910.157(g)(4)).

If an employer has a written fire safety policy that requires immediate, total evacuation of employees from the workplace when a fire alarm sounds; the policy includes an emergency action plan and a fire prevention plan; and fire extinguishers are not on the premises, that employer is exempt from the requirements. If portable fire extinguishers are present, however, the employer must ensure they are located so they are readily accessible to employees and ensure those extinguishers are maintained, fully charged, and operate properly.

Every employer with extinguishers on site should know that they must maintain and test those extinguishers regularly. OSHA’s regulation states they should visually inspect them monthly and also perform an annual maintenance check and record those annual checks' data. Hydrostatic testing should be performed by trained individuals with "suitable testing equipment or facilities" or by qualified third parties.

Employers that do have fire extinguishers on their premises should select them based on the types of anticipated fires there, according to 29 CFR 1910.157(d)(1), and they should place extinguishers for Class A fires so that the travel distance for employees to any extinguisher is 75 feet or less, according to the regulation. For Class B extinguishers, however, the employees' travel distance that employers should consider is 50 feet or less. The travel distance for Class D extinguishers is 75 feet or less.

In addition, employers must provide "alternate equivalent protection when portable fire extinguishers are removed from service for maintenance and recharging," according to 29 CFR 1910.157(e)(5).

What do the extinguisher classes mean, and how many classes exist? In the United States, there are five classes of fire extinguishers:

  • Class A: for wood, paper, cloth, trash, and plastics.
  • Class B: for flammable liquids, including gasoline, oil, grease, and acetone.
  • Class C: for electrical fires and energized equipment fires.
  • Class D: for metal fires, including magnesium, titanium, and sodium.
  • Class K: for kitchen fires that involve vegetable oils, animal fats, or fats used in commercial cooking appliances.

Are You Compliant?
Are you training your employees as frequently as required? Have you designated employees who are expected to stay behind? Have you trained them to know when they should not attempt to fight a fire because it is too large? Are you visually inspecting your extinguishers monthly and checking them annually as required?

Evacuation and Fighting Fires
As stated earlier, educate all workers that they should not attempt to fight a fire that is larger than a desk in size, is producing black smoke, or has flames reaching the ceiling. Other key points about workplace fires for employees to understand:

  • Close doors when exiting. This helps limit the spread of smoke and fire throughout the building.
  • Use stairwells; never use elevators during a fire emergency. Elevators may fail, trapping occupants, and also may fill with smoke.
  • An employee meeting place should be established so everyone can be accounted for after the evacuation. The meeting place must be away from the building because the area of the fire should be clear for fire department personnel, and also so employees are clear of glass or debris that may fall from the building.
  • If workers cannot exit the building, they should create a refuge area: Seal the room, use a damp cloth to stuff around cracks in doors and seal vents to protect against smoke. Don't break windows, but open the window slightly if possible. Stay down under smoke, keep a wet cloth over your nose and mouth, and signal for help by telephone or hang something in the window.

OSHA advises that, in most circumstances, immediate evacuation is the best policy, especially if professional firefighting services are available to respond quickly.

Emergency Action Plan Elements
The emergency action plan2 is site-specific and intended to focus and direct employees' actions during a workplace emergency. It takes into account the work site’s layout and emergency systems. "Most organizations find it beneficial to include a diverse group of representatives (management and employees) in this planning process and to meet frequently to review progress and allocate development tasks. The commitment and support of all employees is critical to the plan's success in the event of an emergency; ask for their help in establishing and implementing your emergency action plan. For smaller organizations, the plan does not need to be written and may be communicated orally if there are 10 or fewer employees," according to OSHA's 29 CFR 1910.38(b).

These elements must be included in the EAP:

  • Means of reporting fires and other emergencies
  • Evacuation procedures and emergency escape route assignments
  • Procedures for employees who remain to operate critical site operations before they evacuate
  • Accounting for all employees after an emergency evacuation has been completed, possibly by designating an "evacuation warden" to assist others with evacuating and to account for all personnel
  • Rescue and medical duties for employees performing them
  • Names or job titles of persons who can be contacted by workers who need more information about the plan or explanation of their duties under the EAP

The EAP also can include a description of the site's alarm system and the location of a secure or off-site location for copies of essential records.

My Own Fire Experience
My one experience with a workplace fire occurred many years ago, when I worked for a few months as a counselor at a Maryland agency operating three group homes for teenage boys and girls. The home where I and a second counselor worked alternating shifts was an old, wood-framed, two-story farmhouse. One cold night in January, after midnight, one of the boys ran down the stairs to tell me there was a fire upstairs.

I ran up and entered the bedroom where the fire was, turned left, and saw that a closet was engulfed in flames. The home had an extinguisher, but I knew right away that I could not extinguish this fire. (Both boys in this room were in their beds; I had checked all of the rooms less than 30 minutes before. All was well and every boy appeared to be asleep.) Now, I began yelling "Fire!" and ordering everyone to evacuate immediately. I called the local fire department and called my boss. All the boys could do was to hurry outside into the snow in what they were wearing and climb into our van. I started it and turned on the heater so they wouldn't freeze. Everyone got out safely, but the farmhouse was gutted despite the fire department's quick response.

What did I know beforehand, and what did I learn? A college graduate at that point, I had never experienced a house fire until that night and had never operated a fire extinguisher. I learned that a fire in a wooden structure spreads incredibly quickly; that a 14-year-old boy is capable of starting a fire in his own room to "scare" someone else who owed him a few dollars (our agency only confirmed who had set the fire months later); and how destructive a fire can be.


This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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