OSHA, under 29 CFR 1910.157, requires that anyone who may be expected to use a fire extinguisher in the workplace be trained in their use.

Fire Safety: Prevention and Protection in the Office

Accounting for employees in the event of an emergency is vital. The Emergency Action Plan should address how to accurately account for all employees.

Besides the obvious risks associated with 1.32 million fires reported in the United States that resulted in 3,400 deaths, 14,670 injuries, and more than $23 billion in property loss, the number of reported fires is on the downward trend. (In 2008, the number of fires reported was approximately 1.45 million.) While this is a noteworthy downward trend, fire-related deaths are on the rise. (USFA, 2017)

The majority of fires (77 percent) occur in the home, while the remaining 23 percent occur at work. (NFPA, 2017) This article will focus on what you, as an employee, can do to protect yourself and co-workers in the office. In addition, it will focus on specific steps that can be taken to prevent fires, as well as how to respond to fire emergencies.

Emergency Action Plans
One of the most important tasks that an employee can do regarding fire safety is to have a good working knowledge of the organization's emergency action plan (EAP). Every employee should be trained on the EAP at the beginning of their employment and as frequently as necessary to maintain familiarity with the procedures. At a minimum, the training should occur at least annually.

An EAP should consist of methods for notifying employees in the event of an emergency and reporting an emergency, designated emergency evacuation routes and exits, procedures for assisting workers and visitors with disabilities, procedures to account for employees, and rescue and medical procedures. It is the employer's responsibility to establish this plan; however, the employee has a responsibility to understand and participate in the plan and to make suggestions for improvement. After all, an employee’s life may depend on this plan.

Not every installation has an alarm system, or there may be areas where the alarm system is not effective, such as outside areas or in outbuildings. In these cases, it is necessary for the plan to address notification to those employees. In addition, the alarm system may have various sounds for different emergencies. Employees should be aware of these differences.

The first priority of employees in the event of a fire is to immediately evacuate the facility and go to their designated assembly point. The plan must address designated emergency evacuation routes. It is part of an employee's responsibilities to become familiar with these routes. Furthermore, the employee should assist in making sure that the exits and routes are maintained in a manner free from obstruction. Employees also must familiarize themselves with a secondary route of escape in the event the first is blocked by fire.

One of the most overlooked aspects of any emergency action plan is that of employees and visitors with disabilities. In the event of a fire, elevators are programmed to close and go to the bottom floor to prevent employees from entering and becoming trapped in a fire. This means that one of the escape routes for the second and higher floors is via stairwells. If an employee requires a wheelchair or crutches, they will need assistance in traversing the stairs. The EAP should not leave this to chance, but rather have designated employees responsible to assist.

Accounting for employees in the event of an emergency is vital. The EAP should address how to accurately account for all employees. Employees should always proceed to the assembly location and inform their supervisor or designated representative of their status.

Finally, in any emergency there is the potential for injury to employees. The EAP should also identify first aid and medical responders. Medical response and/or first aid kits should be available inside and outside the building structures that are easily accessible to the designated medical responders. In the event it is necessary to contact 911 services, employees should be designated to direct the responding teams to the location of the emergency.

Fire Extinguishers
The primary purpose of a fire extinguisher is to assist in clearing an evacuation route if necessary. A secondary purpose is to put out small fires. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), under 29 CFR 1910.157, requires that anyone who may be expected to use a fire extinguisher in the workplace be trained in their use. The first thing that one should be familiar with is that there are several classes of fires:

  • Class A: Ash producing materials, such as wood or paper
  • Class B: Chemical fires, such as gasoline, oils, etc.
  • Class C: Energized electrical fires
  • Class D: Metal fires
  • Class K: Kitchen grease fires

It is important to understand the types of fire in order to determine which extinguisher to use. Most fire extinguishers in the work area are classified as ABC, but you need to identify this before discharging them on a fire. A simple acronym for using a fire extinguisher is PASS:

  • Pull the pin.
  • Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire.
  • Squeeze the lever.
  • Sweep the nozzle from side to side.

The overriding rule when using a fire extinguisher is that if you are not comfortable, then evacuate the building and let the fire department put out the fire.

Fire Prevention Tips
The most effective means of fire safety lies in the prevention of their occurrence in the first place. The following tips are provided to assist in the prevention of office fires.

Good housekeeping can not only prevent workplace injuries, it is also vital to preventing fires in the office. By maintaining combustible and flammable materials to a bare minimum, the potential for fires is greatly reduced, if not eliminated. Dust also can increase the likelihood of fires or dust explosions. Trash cans should be constructed of non-combustible materials, and dumpsters should be covered with lids. Another important prevention (and an OSHA requirement) is to store oily rags in a self-closing container constructed of non-combustible materials. Finally, flammable materials should be stored in flammable materials cabinets.

Electrical safety
A common occurrence in the office includes overloading of circuits by using multi-plugs, such as surge protectors. In some instances, there are multi-plugs that are plugged into multi-plugs. The typical circuit in an office building is tied to a 20-amp breaker. The amp rating for each device to be plugged into the outlet is identified on the label. All devices to be plugged into the circuit are to be added together to get the total amps. Do not go over this rating.

Electrical cords are another concern in the office. Extension cords should be rated for commercial use when used in the office. Electrical cords can become frayed from sharp edges, vibration, or pulling them out of electrical outlets by the cord instead of the plug. Always pull the cords out of electrical outlets by the plug. All cords should be inspected at least annually to ensure that the insulation remains intact. Replace broken, frayed, or cracked electrical cords immediately. Many companies have a color-coded tape to identify inspections by the year. For example, green tape on both ends may represent that the cord was inspected in 2019.

Office appliances
Coffee pots, microwaves, toasters, etc., are commonplace in an office kitchen area. To prevent fires from these types of appliances, a person (usually by position) should be designated to turn these off at the end of each workday.

Space heaters
During winter and cold months, employees usually bring space heaters into the office. Prior to bringing them into the office, the employees should ensure that they are in proper working condition and are equipped with a turn-over safety device. Many companies have policies that require these devices to be inspected and permitted by company electricians.

Designated smoking areas
Smoking is a major source for potential fires. It is important that smoking only be allowed in designated areas. These areas should be equipped with "butt cans." It is always a good idea to have a fire extinguisher located near the designated smoking area.

Fires are one of the most serious health and safety threats facing an office employee today. Employees should become intimately familiar with the company's emergency action plan. Specifically, employees should ensure that they are aware of the evacuation procedures, including escape routes and medical response procedures. By becoming knowledgeable in the evacuation routes and procedures, an employee just may save her life or the life of another.

1. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/data/statistics/#tab-1
2. https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Data-research-and-tools/US-Fire-Problem/Fire-loss-in-the-United-States

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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