Proactively preventing fires reduces the risk of injuries and costly structural damage.

Fire Protection: A Complete Approach

There are six critical components to a workplace fire safety program.

As Richard Tabb drove to work one summer morning, he had no idea the result of his hard work and dedication for the past 30 years would soon be destroyed. Around 5 p.m. that evening, his auto repair business was completely incinerated by a fire. The place where he taught his sons about the business and supported his family for the past three decades had burned to the ground within minutes.1

While not every fire is quite this destructive, safety directors must be aware of the devastating impact that a fire can have on a business. Property damage, injuries, and death are serious risks associated with structure fires. In addition to extensive workplace fire prevention training, every workplace fire safety checklist should include regular inspection and maintenance of several critical fire safety components to help prevent fires and also reduce the impact of fires.

1. Fire Extinguishers
OSHA and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulations require businesses to provide functioning, portable fire extinguishers for use by employees. Fire extinguishers should be inspected once a month -- and more often in higher-risk environments. This involves ensuring the units are not blocked, the pressure is at the recommended level, and no dents or chemical deposits are visible.

In addition to these quick checks, units need to be maintained, inspected, and retagged on an annual basis. Partner with a licensed fire protection service provider that will conduct thorough examinations and handle repairs, recharging, or replacement. A licensed fire protection provider also will make sure you have the right type of extinguisher(s) for the most likely fire hazard.

2. Fire Extinguisher Training
While fire extinguisher location and functionality are key to reducing the impact of a fire, employees also must be properly trained in their use. A 2011 Harris Poll revealed that one in five Americans (19 percent) would be afraid to put out a fire using a portable fire extinguisher. However, three in four adults (77 percent) would feel more comfortable using a fire extinguisher if they received training.2

Giving employees hands-on fire-fighting experience is a simple way to ease fears and enhance comprehension of proper emergency response. On-site training using a simulated fire can give employees a better understanding of how fire extinguishers work and feel. Additionally, training your employees ensures that they will be able to recognize when a fire extinguisher will be effective and when fire-fighting efforts are no longer safe or recommended.

3. Exit Signs and Emergency Lights
With illuminated exit signs, businesses provide occupants with a clear path to safety. According to the NFPA Life Safety Code, all occupied buildings must have exit signs that are brightly lit and visible from all directions. Signs may be externally or internally illuminated, and they must contrast surrounding décor to ensure their visibility in smoky situations. To guarantee exit light functionality, have a licensed fire protection professional inspect units for light brightness, back-up battery charge and possible damage. Per NFPA code, exit light batteries should undergo a burn test on an annual basis that simulates lighting the unit for 90 minutes solely using backup power.

In the event of a total power loss, emergency lighting effectively guides building occupants to the nearest exit. Confirm that these lights properly illuminate all primary and alternative exit routes, including stairways, interior corridors, and hallways. The NFPA Life Safety Code requires a monthly inspection of emergency lighting to ensure its functionality in case of a fire.

Although both exit signs and emergency lights help lead employees in the right direction, it is still necessary to review evacuation procedures. Create an emergency plan that details all exit routes through the facility. Review it regularly during safety training sessions and make revisions if renovations are made to the building. Then, make sure these maps are visible near entryways, in bathroom stalls, and in employee break rooms on each floor.

4. Alarm Systems
An important step for fire safety involves early detection and warning to building occupants before the situation becomes critical. Data shows that a fire can double in size and intensity every 30 seconds and having a fully functional fire alarm system can literally be the difference between life and death.

When smoke, heat, or fire is detected, alarm systems send a corresponding notification to a central dispatching station or nearby fire department to dispatch the first responders. These systems simultaneously trigger visual cues such as intense sound effects and flashing lights to help signal a fire to building occupants.

Alarm systems and panels are complex electrical devices with many inputs and outputs that need to be inspected and maintained every six months for functionality and NFPA compliance purposes. Like many of the fire life safety devices above, partnering with a licensed fire protection provider can ensure your alarm and all its components are completely functional.

Many workplaces, especially manufacturing plants or warehouses, are loud atmospheres. Although employees become accustomed to these various noises, they must be able to immediately recognize the sound of a fire alarm system. Conduct fire drills twice each year to familiarize employees with alarm sounds. Fire drills also ensure employees know how to quickly and calmly exit the building and where to go once outside. Designate an evacuation meeting point and use an attendance roster to account for everyone once they have safely evacuated.

5. Sprinkler Systems
Automatic sprinkler systems can be critical to saving lives during a fire. They protect buildings on a 24-hour basis, reduce the spread of flames, and limit property damage. National and local fire codes require that sprinkler systems be inspected and tested periodically by a licensed fire protection provider. Inspections and maintenance guarantee that water supply is operable, sprinklers are free from obstructions, and systems are fully functional.

During training sessions, review the proper sequence of events to take when sprinkler systems and all other fire alarms trigger. Emphasize that employees should never attempt to recover personal belongings before fleeing a building. Saving a life is more important than preventing a personal item from being damaged by fire or water.

6. From Protection to Prevention
In addition to fire safety training, it is also important to equip employees with the knowledge of how to prevent fires. Proactively preventing fires reduces the risk of injuries and costly structure damage. Encourage employees to read all hazardous chemical directions thoroughly because the chemicals could be flammable or could ignite when mixed. Maintain machinery to prevent overheating and report any visible electrical or mechanical hazards that might lead to a fire. Teach your employees to place oily rags in covered containers and clean out break room microwaves and other heating devices regularly.

While not every fire can be completely prevented, there are several measures businesses can take to safeguard building occupants and structures. By combining up-to-date equipment, professional fire protection services, and comprehensive training, the devastation associated with a fire can be largely offset. Through a complete fire protection program, safety directors can better defend their organization and save lives.

Sources
1. http://wtkr.com/2012/08/18/newport-news-business-cathes-fire-burns-down/
2. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/03/idUS185725+03-Oct-2011+HUG20111003

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

John Rudy is Fire Protection Marketing Manager at Cintas Corporation. For more information on fire protection and first aid and safety services, visit www.cintas.com/Fire-Protection-Services and www.cintas.com/firstaidsafety.

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