Short & Spark

So often when we think of electrical safety, we concentrate on the really big things . . . but far too often, it is the little things that start fires.

THE smell of scorched coffee fills the air on Monday morning. The only sound is that of high-pitched, heatedly arguing staff members, about whose responsibility it was to have shut off the pot before the weekend, as they fan the thin haze of smoke out of the break room. Just a small thing? Not so. Many fires in office settings begin from seemingly innocent items left unattended, or items not in good working order or simply misused by staff.

Employees are busy--so busy, in fact, they often forget the most basic items. They forget to shut off the coffee pot and it scorches or melts the unit. They forget to unplug the space heater and it melts the carpet or ignites curtains or other combustible materials. Outlets are overloaded because of employee lunches or parties. They leave holiday lights on, which can also lead to an unattended fire, especially during long seasons such as Christmas.

Computers, room air filters, TVs, and radios play softly through the night, unattended. Burned popcorn in the microwave is responsible for many fire alarms being activated, buildings being evacuated falsely, as well as fires. Train employees to turn off electrical devices when no one is using them. Post safe operating procedures for microwave ovens and other small appliances. Just because they're everywhere does not mean everyone knows how to use them.

So often when we think of electrical safety, we concentrate on the really big things . . . but far too often, it is the little things that start fires. Strings of two-for-a-dollar Christmas lights twinkle merrily while plugged into an unapproved extension cord--often called zip cords, which are unapproved for workplace use. Electrical cords snake under carpets and around doorways, are rolled over by chairs; they are unseen, abused, and misshapen from overheating and overloading. Coffee warmers or coffee pots seem to be on every desk; even personal refrigerators are allowed in some locations. Soothing personal waterfalls and aromatherapy warmers are left unattended for weeks at a time. Forget rabbits: Space heaters really do multiply at the first cold snap of the season. Personal small appliances--crockpots, stereos, vintage desk lights, and fans of all sizes, ages, and materials--can be found in almost any office setting.

Ensure your workplace has sufficient circuits and wall outlets in the office so employees don't have to use extension cords. If an extension cord must be used, make sure it is rated for the products to be used. Extension cords are for temporary use only. Train people to unplug and put away extension cords. Never keep an extension cord plugged in when it is not in use. The cord will still conduct electricity until it is unplugged from the outlet. Use correctly wired, three-prong grounded electrical outlets. Do not overload the electrical circuits. Never plug in electrical products that, when their wattage use is combined, draw more than 1,500 watts from the same circuit.

Taking Control Again
You have a great electrical safety program . . . so you think. What about all those little electrical items that seem to pop up from nowhere, unchecked, un-inspected, and often unapproved? As the safety professional, you may have to establish and set the rules.

First, ask yourself and others in your safety committee: Is there a problem? Many times, smaller companies can deal with these items one on one, case by case, quietly and with no need of a formal policy. Other groups need it documented in writing, with clear-cut enforcement procedures and management commitment. Employee newsletters can offer tips for safe usage and things to be alert for, such as malfunctions.

Have a policy. As part of the policy, develop a plan of attack. Be sure to list the potential hazards of such items in an office setting. Enforce that policy--really enforce it. You can't let some folks slide and penalize others without destroying your credibility in safety. Be evenhanded, but be consistent.

Conduct a complete electrical safety audit, and make sure those personal items are included. Check that every item is in good working order. Tag or remove those that do not comply. I recently found an early 1920s fan in use, its open grill and fabric cord a little tattered but still intact. It was removed within the hour, I hope to a museum where it belonged. Not in an office environment.

Repeat your inspections as needed--quarterly, at season changes, before holidays, whatever works for your location. Management support. Do you really have it? Before rolling out your edict, ensure you have full support in writing by top management's signature approval. You may have to justify your hard-nosed stand, so have your facts straight ranging from liability to insurance coverage, energy costs, worker's compensation issues, and even time abuse.

Your Bottom Line
The bottom line: be reasonable but consistent. If the history of your safety program has been peaceful coexistence, that's the way to go. Give guidance, be supportive, and offer alternatives. But always be ready to take a hard line once you decide what that boundary is.

If your policy is "no space heaters," you really have to enforce no space heaters. Allow one, and they will pop up everywhere. Offer alternatives, such as an office coffee service or more control over heating/cooling temperatures. Explain what the hazards are to each and every employee. Communication does make a difference in safety: It ensures success.

This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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