Fire Prevention Basics

Published On: March 1, 2016By Categories: Safety, Safety Matters

It’s critical employees know what to do when a fire occurs in the workplace.

By Alexandra Walsh

More than 200 fires occur in U.S. workplaces on an average day according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 143 workers died from fires in 2011. More than 5000 are injured annually in explosions and fires on the job according to OSHA.

Although worker safety is always the first concern, it should be noted the annual cost of workplace fires to American businesses is more than $2 billion.

Having a fire prevention program in place is crucial for employee safety and regulatory compliance, as is anticipating and controlling hazards. Work on the assumption that all unsafe conditions can be anticipated and controlled and accidents should be able to be prevented.

It is also essential that fire prevention training be thorough and consistent. This includes hazard communication training to alert employees where flammable materials exist in the workplace. Train employees on the fire prevention plan, the emergency action plan, and how to use fire extinguishers.

What Causes Fires

Fire is a chemical reaction requiring three elements to be present for the reaction to take place and continue. They are: heat or an ignition source, fuel, and oxygen. These three elements typically are referred to as the fire triangle.

Scientists developed the concept of the fire triangle to help in understanding the cause of fires and how they can be prevented and extinguished. Heat, fuel, and oxygen must combine in a precise way for a fire to start and continue to burn. If one element of the triangle is not present or is removed, a fire will not start—or if already burning, will be extinguished.

Ignition sources can include any material, any equipment, or any operation that emits a spark or flame. Of course that would include obvious items like torches as well as less obvious items like static electricity and grinding operations. Equipment or anything radiating heat, such as catalytic converters and mufflers, can also be ignition sources.

DACUM Codes
To help meet your professional needs, this column covers skills and competencies found in DACUM charts for drillers and pump installers. DO refers to the drilling chart and PI represents the pumps chart. The letter and number immediately following is the skill on the chart covered by the column. This column covers: DOD-8, DOK-8, DOK-9, DOL-2, DOD-4, 8; DOK-6, 8, 9, 14; DOL-1, 2, 3; PIB-2, 9; PIE-2; PIG-2, 3

More information on DACUM and the charts are available at www.NGWA.org/Certification by clicking on “Exam Information.”

Fuel sources include combustible materials—wood, paper, trash, and clothing. Fire results from flammable liquids such as gasoline or solvents and flammable gases such as propane or natural gas.

The fire triangle’s last component, oxygen, comes from the air in the atmosphere. Fire results from the reaction between the fuel and oxygen in the air.

Air contains 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. OSHA describes a hazardous atmosphere as one that is oxygen-deficient because it has less than 19.5% oxygen, or oxygen-enriched because it has greater than 23.5% oxygen. Both instances are regarded as an atmosphere immediately dangerous to life and health. Depending on the type of fuel involved, fires can occur with a much lower volume of oxygen present than is needed to support human respiration.

Fire Prevention Standards

When OSHA conducts workplace inspections, it checks to see whether employers are complying with OSHA standards for fire safety.

Employers are required by OSHA to implement fire protection and prevention programs in the workplace. The regulations applying to fire protection and prevention can be found mainly in Subpart F of the construction standards—1926.150(f)—although the requirement for a fire prevention program is first set out in Subpart C—1926.150(c).

OSHA stipulates businesses should train workers about potential fire hazards in their workplace and the procedures to be followed in the event of a fire emergency. OSHA recommends all employers have an emergency evacuation/action plan in place in case of fire, featuring safety assignments for key personnel.

These plans are required for industries where workers come into contact with hazardous chemicals.

Many of OSHA’s fire safety recommendations are specific to an industry or even a job. For example, in the construction industry OSHA calls for a fire plan to be formulated prior to any demolition job. Other OSHA-mandated standards—like adequate fire exits—are required in every industry.

Building Fire Exits

  • Each workplace must have at least two means of escape
    remote from each other.
  • Fire doors must not be blocked or locked when employees are inside the building. Delayed opening of fire doors is permitted when an approved alarm system is integrated into the fire door design.
  • Exit routes must be clear and free of obstructions and marked with signs designating exits from the building.

Portable Fire Extinguishers

  • Each workplace must have the proper type of fire extinguisher for the fire hazards present.
  • Employees must be instructed on the hazards of fighting a fire, how to properly operate the fire extinguishers, and what procedures to follow in alerting others to the fire emergency.
  • Only approved fire extinguishers are permitted to be used in workplaces and must be kept in good operating condition. Proper maintenance and inspection of this equipment is required of each employer.
  • Where the employer wishes to evacuate employees instead of having them fight small fires, there must be written emergency plans and employee training to provide for proper evacuation.

Emergency Evacuation Planning

  • Each employer needs to have a written emergency action plan that describes the routes to use and procedures to be followed by employees.
  • Procedures for accounting for all evacuated employees must be part of the plan. The written plan must be available for employee review.
  • Procedures for helping physically impaired employees must be addressed in the plan. The plan must include procedures for those employees who must remain behind temporarily to shut down critical equipment before they evacuate.
  • The preferred means of alerting employees to a fire emergency must be part of the plan and an alarm system must be available throughout the workplace and must be used for alerting for evacuation. The alarm system may be voice communication
    or sound signals such as bells, whistles, or horns. Employees must know the evacuation signal.
  • Training all employees so they know what is to be done in an emergency is required. Employers must review the plan with new employees so they know correct actions to take in an emergency and with all employees whenever the plan is changed.

Fire Prevention Plan

  • Employers need a written fire prevention plan to go with the fire evacuation plan to minimize the
    frequency of evacuation. Stopping unwanted fires from occurring is the most efficient way to handle them.
  • Procedures for storage and cleanup of flammable materials and waste must be included in the plan. Recycling flammable waste such as paper is encouraged. Handling and packaging procedures must be included in the plan.
  • Controlling workplace ignition sources such as smoking, welding, and burning must be addressed in the plan. Heat-producing equipment such as burners, boilers, ovens, and stoves must be properly maintained and kept clean of flammable residues. Flammables are not to be stored close to these pieces of equipment.
  • All employees are to be made aware of the potential fire hazards of their job and the procedures called for in the employer’s fire prevention plan.

Fire Suppression System

  • Automatic sprinkler systems throughout the workplace are the most reliable fire-fighting means. The fire sprinkler system detects the
    fire, sounds an alarm, and puts the water where the fire and heat are located.
  • Automatic fire suppression systems require maintenance to keep them in serviceable condition. When necessary to take a fire suppression system out of service, the employer must temporarily substitute a fire watch of trained employees standing by to respond quickly to any fire emergency in the normally protected area.
  • Signs must be posted about the areas protected by fire suppression systems that use agents that are a serious health hazard such as carbon dioxide. An emergency action plan must provide safe evacuation of employees from the protected area.

Employee Training

Workplace fire safety begins with proper planning and training. All employees should receive training in fire safety and what to do to prevent and escape a fire. Employees may be required to review the emergency action plan upon employment, and should review it anytime changes are made. OSHA requires most employers to make emergency action plans readily available for employees to review.

Training is required upon employment and at least every year thereafter. It is recommended the training session cover how to determine when a fire is too big to handle, what type of extinguisher to use, and the PASS (personal alert safety system) of early-stage firefighting.

It also is recommended live fire training be conducted periodically. Live training exposes employees to the pressure released from a fire extinguisher when the handle is squeezed and provides hands-on experience and practice extinguishing a fire. Some local fire departments and most fire extinguisher suppliers offer this training.

All company fire-prevention training sessions should be documented. If an outside organization conducts the training, it’s a good idea to obtain training certificates for the attendees.


Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.

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