Know your facility

Raising Awareness in Your Organization

Point out during training, or when you are just out raising awareness, particular areas or operations that are at greatest risk of starting a fire.

Look at your facility. Is it well lighted and cheerful, with curbside appeal? Now, look more closely at the first few days of employment and the fire safety features and safeguards. How does it look now? Think about it: An employee's first glimpse of your fire safety program often takes place during new employee orientation. Conducted by a member of the safety team or maybe human resources, this first impression goes a long way toward establishing the safety culture within your organization, but it is done in a blur of other important benefit paperwork, payroll, and orientation haze.

Your job is to get new hires to understand the seriousness of the instruction materials by delivering a clear, concise training class that drives home the point that fire is not something to be taken lightly. It's not always a happy thought, but fire safety is one of the most important things you can teach new employees as you start them out on the right footing.

Keep Safety on Everyone's Mind
Getting the message across to new employees is relatively straightforward because new hires, who generally want to make a good first impression, are often positive, attentive, and more easily influenced. Maintaining the awareness gets tougher after an employee settles into a position and, potentially, gets too comfortable while the safety message falls to the wayside.

In addition to new employee orientation or annual refresher training, bring up the topic of fire safety during safety rounds, monthly inspections, or audits. Gauge the level of awareness and understanding of the workforce by posing casual fire safety questions to employees at all levels. Does your staff get it or not? Did you get a solid answer or just a blank stare? Maybe your training isn't effective or doesn’t have a lasting impact. Use this feedback to tweak your training methods or simplify your message. Or ask in a different way. . . could there be a language barrier or other ADA issue?

As an organization's safety professional, safety is your priority, but it might be another employee's afterthought as he or she goes about the day focused on other assigned duties. Look at yourself as the marketing director for safety in the workplace. Keep fire safety on people’s minds by talking it up without being harsh and reminding everyone to incorporate safe practices into all of their assigned responsibilities. People learn by reinforcement better than force.

Know the Fire Safety Aspects of Your Building
Know your facility's fire safety features and be able to explain them in a way that makes sense, which is often more easily said than done in a high-tech world. Pass along this information to new or concerned employees who may or may not have valid reasons for their anxiety.

Does your facility have sprinklers, fire-resistant furniture, fire doors, exhaust fans, smoke dampers, fire walls, smoke detectors, and fire alarms (visible and/or audible)? Tell and show them exactly what this equipment does and where the features are. Think of it as "high-tech show and tell."

Are the construction materials fire resistant? Are chemicals stored safely? Are fuels stored properly? All of these details can reassure an uneasy employee that you are on top of it when it comes to fire safety. As a follow-up, make sure employees new or old know how to report problem areas and where to find out more information when they need to. We all know safety thrives on feedback!

Have a solid understanding of processes and operations that are going on at your facility. Point out during training, or when you are just out raising awareness, particular areas or operations that are at greatest risk of starting a fire. With this in mind, do you have a maintenance shop, fuel or chemical storage, old wiring, welding operations, a kitchen, or personnel who smoke?

Increase Situational Awareness
You will be forced to get creative with your training and maintaining. Teach the basics such as R.A.C.E. (Rescue-Alarm-Contain-Extinguish or Evacuate) and P.A.S.S (Pull the pin, Aim the fire extinguisher nozzle at the base of the fire, Squeeze the handle, Sweep from side to side), but take it a step further and encourage employees to raise their situational awareness for the specific industry concerned and any special equipment. Being creatures of habit, most employees have a routine for moving about a facility as they take the same hallways, doorways, elevators, and stairwells. What if a fire blocks the usual path? What is plan B, C, D, or E? Where are the fire extinguishers in the work area and beyond? Do employees know how to use the extinguisher? Where is the fire exit stairwell when the elevator isn't to be used during a fire? Where is the safe meeting place to get a head count?

Emphasize the point with "what if" scenarios. Use real-world examples of fires in a similar environment to your workplace and constructively review positives and negatives of the incident facility's response to the fire event. Make it realistic--not just some far-fetched scare tactic. Reiterate to your employees that a similar scenario could play out in their workplace and that the end results can be improved by the preparation and awareness that leads up to the fire.

Also, use the real-world scenario discussion to emphasize calm and order over chaos and panic. Whether you’re running a drill or during an actual fire, everyone has a role, even if that role is only to listen to the direction of a calm leader. Disorder could lead to unnecessary injuries or even deaths. Proper drills will help with this. We all remember the stories of the many lives saved because of the drills held by the floor monitors in the Twin Towers prior to 9/11. Hundreds of employees hated the drills but were extremely thankful that they knew exactly what to do when alarms sounded and they calmly left the floors.

Get Creative
Another way to get people talking about fire safety is to invite the local fire department for a tour of your facility. This is a win-win. The organization raises fire safety awareness by getting people talking about firefighters being on site, while the fire department personnel benefit by getting to see the facility before they are needed in an actual emergency. Having the local officials tour the facility shows safety pride, too.

Open Door Policy
Reassure employees that your door is always open, whether regarding fire safety or not--no names asked, just a chance to discuss an issue quietly in confidence. No one knows the hazards of their job better than they do. Encourage them to raise concerns regarding equipment, training, behavior, storage, security, etc. If trouble is brewing, you want to know about it before it becomes a real issue. Safety professionals don't like surprises, and the additional sets of eyes and ears will only help.

Utilize Opportunities
You don't have to preach and you don't have to banter, but you do need to make sure that your employees are thinking about fire safety more often than just during the annual refresher course. If you see a congested hallway, a blocked exit, an uninspected fire extinguisher, or any other indicator that employees don't have fire safety on the brain, use this as a teachable moment to increase their fire safety knowledge and awareness. Your entire facility will be better off for it.

Fire safety is every day, not once and done. Consistency, following up on problem areas with corrective actions, and planning will provide your company exactly the results it wants: fewer fire-related problems.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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