by Bill Grieb

Fire safety is important business. National Fire Prevention Week in October focuses on the importance of fire safety in the home, in schools, and at work. But fire safety in the workplace is the principal focus of the Occupational Safety and Health Administrat-ion (OSHA) — and saving lives and preventing injuries due to fire is a key concern.

According to National Safety Council figures, losses due to workplace fires exceed $3 billion. Workplace fires result in an estimated 360 deaths every year.

There is a long and tragic history of workplace fires in this country. One of the most notable was the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, in which nearly 150 women and young girls died because of locked fire exits and an inadequate fire extinguishing system. History has repeated itself in the Hamlet, NC fire, where 25 workers died in a poultry-processing plant. There, too, problems involved the fire exits and extinguishing systems.

In its workplace inspections, OSHA checks to see whether employers are complying with its standards for fire safety.


  • Class A – Ordinary combustible materials, wood, paper, etc. Treat with water (cooling) or dry chemicals (coating).
  • Class B – Flammable liquids, gases, and greases. Treat by excluding air with carbon dioxide, etc. Respirators may be required if the firefighters’ fresh air supply is threatened.
  • Class C – Electrical fires. Treat with nonconductive extinguishing agent.
  • Class D – Combustible and reactive metals such as magnesium. Treat with non-reactive heat-absorbing extinguishing medium.

Maine 200

In 1993, OSHA instituted the Maine 200 program. About 200 companies worked with OSHA to improve safety. Employers received federal assistance in developing health and safety programs and were assured that inspections had a low priority. According to a White House press release, employers identified more than 14 times as many hazards as could have been cited by OSHA inspectors. Approximately 60% of the participating businesses reduced injury and illness rates.

OSHA looks for the following:

  • Management commitment
  • Employee participation
  • Hazard identification effort
  • Correction and documentation
  • Training for employees and supervisors
  • Reduction of illness and injury

The Maine 200 approach has proved cost effective in reducing workplace injury and illness. The program is being expanded by OSHA.

Fire Causes:

The main hazards that result in fire are:

  • Smoking
  • Electrical
  • Poor Housekeeping
  • Grease (cooking, industrial, etc.)
  • Spontaneous combustion
  • Friction — for example, overheating bearings
  • Explosion of vapors, dust, atomized liquids or gases
  • Chemical reactions

Fire requires three things: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Removal of any of these will prevent or stop a fire. There are five steps in fire prevention and protection: engineering; planning; training; inspection; and follow-up.


The first step in fire prevention is to engineer the site for fire prevention and protection. This includes attention to layout, design, construction, and materials. Automatic and manually operated fixed-sprinkler or extinguisher systems may be installed. Process and work flow should be analyzed for contribution to fire hazard or inhibition of effective response.


The second step is development, documentation, and communication of emergency response plans. Plans should include:

  • Responsibilities of management, supervisors, employees, public
  • Response resources, including sprinklers and extinguishers, by-pass, shutdown, and reservoir systems
  • Response personnel duties, training, and tools
  • Coordination with public resources such as fire departments and their equipment and facilities such as fire hydrants
  • Means of sounding alarm and communication with affected persons
  • Isolation and containment planning
  • Planning and resources for disabled and others
  • Evacuation — locally, horizontally (nearby areas), and globally
  • Shut-down procedures and back-up systems
  • Emergency communication systems
  • First aid provisions and training
  • Provision of water, food, clothing, and shelter as needed


The third step is employee and public training:

  • Are postings appropriate, understandable, and adequate?
  • Are employees trained to identify and respond to emergency situations?
  • Are designated employees trained to participate in response to fire emergencies?
  • Are reviews and drills conducted as appropriate?


The fourth step is regular inspection to:

  • Ensure compliance with plans
  • Test systems and extinguishers
  • Verify adequacy of postings
  • Review response capability and training
  • Identify new or existing hazards
  • Effect and verify improvements


The fifth step includes:

  • Maintain watch after fire is extinguished
  • Account for all personnel and public
  • Secure the site, facilities, equipment, and materials
  • Search affected areas for hazards (plumbing, electrical, structural, hazardous material or fire by-products) and report findings
  • Identify causes and effect changes to prevent recurrence
  • Report as appropriate to management, government, and public


OSHA standards require employers to develop evacuation and prevention plans.

Employers must provide proper exits, employee training, and fire-fighting equipment.

Emergency Evacuation Planning

Each employer needs to have a written emergency action plan for evacuating employees. This would describe the routes to use and procedures to be followed by employees, as well as procedures for accounting for all the evacuees.

When appropriate, special procedures for helping physically impaired employees must also be addressed, and the plan must include procedures for the employees who temporarily remain behind to shut down critical plant equipment.

Means of alerting employees to a fire emergency must be part of the plan. An employee alarm system — voice communication or sound signals such as bells, whistles, or horns –must be available throughout the workplace complex for use in an evacuation. Employees must know the evacuation signal. The written plan must be available for employee review.

Fire Prevention Plan

Employers need to implement a written fire prevention plan to complement the fire evacuation plan. After all, heading off the occurrence of fires is the most efficient way to handle them. Make the written plan available for employee review.

Housekeeping procedures for storage and cleanup of flammable materials and waste must be included in the plan. The recycling of flammable waste such as paper is encouraged; however, handling and packaging procedures must be included in the plan.

Procedures for controlling workplace ignition sources such as smoking, welding, and burning must be addressed in the plan. Heat-producing equipment such as burners, heat exchangers, boilers, ovens stoves, fryers, and so on must be properly maintained and kept clear of accumulations of flammable residue; flammable should never be stored close to these pieces of equipment.

Building Fire Exits

Each workplace building should have at least two means of escape to be used in a fire emergency, and they should be remote from each other. Fire doors must not be blocked or locked when employees are within the building. A delayed opening of fire doors is permitted when an approved alarm system is integrated into the door design.

Exit routes from buildings must be clear and free of obstructions and properly marked with exit signs.

Employee Training

All employees should be apprised of the potential fire hazards of their job and trained in what to do in an emergency. Employers must review the fire prevention and evacua¬≠tion plans with newly assigned employees — and with all employees when the plan is changed.

Portable Fire Extinguishers

Each workplace building must have a full complement of proper fire extinguishers. Employees intended to use fire extinguishers must be instructed on the hazards of fighting fire, how to operate the available fire extinguishers properly, and the procedures to follow in alerting others to an emergency.

Only approved fire extinguishers are permitted for workplace use, and they must be kept in good operating condition. Proper maintenance and inspection of this equipment are required. When the employer wishes to evacuate employees instead of having them fight small fires, there must be written emergency plans and employee training for proper evacuation.

Fire-Suppression System

Properly designed and installed fixed fire-suppression systems enhance fire safety in the workplace. Automatic sprinkler systems throughout the workplace are among the most reliable of these. The fire sprinkler system detects the fire, sounds an alarm, and sprays water at the fire’s location.

Automatic fire-suppression systems require proper maintenance to keep them in serviceable condition. When it’s necessary to take a fire-suppression system out of service while business continues, the employer must temporarily substitute a fire watch of trained employees standing by to respond quickly to any fire emergency in the area. The fire watch must correlate to the employer’s fire prevention plan and emergency action plan.

Signs must be posted about areas protected by total-flooding fire-suppression systems. These use agents that are a serious health hazard, such as carbon dioxide, Halon 1211, etc. Such automatic systems must be equipped with pre-discharge alarm systems in the area to warn employees of the impending discharge and allow time for evacuation.

An emergency action plan should provide for the safe evacuation of employees from the protected area. Such plans are to be part of the facility’s overall evacuation plan.



  • Identify the hazards: nature, degree, and auxiliary hazards
  • Determine who is threatened: co-workers, other employees, the public


  • Select action level
  • Individual action: extinguish a small contained fire
  • Limited response involving others
  • Major response with fire and rescue department


    • Warn co-workers and public
    • Call, meet, and direct fire department
    • Report to management
    • Evacuation rules: maintain order
    • Do not use elevators; help others
    • If caught in smoke: breathe through nose in quick short breaths and crawl along floor
    • Move to inside handrail of stairways, move in single file
    • Do not impede firefighters and other responders
    • Do not block stairways, exits, etc.
    • Do not reenter until told to do so
    • Move threatened vehicles
    • Isolate the area as much as possible by closing doors, etc.
    • Shut off required machinery, power, and gas
    • Activate automatic and/or manual fire extinguishers
    • Attempt to extinguish fire if it can be done without risk to your safety
    • Use extinguishers, hoses and equipment only if you are trained to operate them safely and effectively
    • Use respirators as needed after receiving proper training


  • Smoking should be limited to certain areas, and the limitations should be enforced.
  • Use only the ashtrays and containers provided in smoking areas.
  • All electrical cords should be inspected regularly.
  • Do not overload electrical circuits.
  • If an electrical cord becomes warm, disconnect any attached appliances and report it immediately.
  • Keep the environment clean. Don’t allow paper to pile up.
  • Don’t allow boxes or furniture to lie in aisles or at exits.
  • Don’t block self-closing doors.

Printed with permission from SAFETY INFORMATION CURRENTS