HAZARDS OF FIRE
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fires account for around 200 workplaces deaths per year and 5,000 injuries. Hazards includes burns, smoke inhalation, and extensive damage. Smoke inhalation is the most common source of fire-related deaths. As fire uses oxygen, it also gives off toxic and potentially fatal fumes like carbon monoxide.
HOW DO FIRES START?
Fires are comprised of three elements: Heat, oxygen, and fuel. All three elements are found in most industrial workplaces:
- Heat is what ignites a fuel source. Common heat sources include electrical cords, motors and sparks from welding or power tools.
- Oxygen is present in every workplace. As such, this element of a fire cannot be completely controlled or eliminated.
- Fuel refers to anything that will burn when exposed to heat. Common fuel sources include pallets, carboard boxes, gasoline, and combustible dust. Fuel sources can be solids, liquids, or gases.
Fires can grow and spread through the process of convection: as hot air rises, colder air containing oxygen is moved towards the fire. Measures must be taken to ensure that the three elements of fire are kept separate, and that emergency measures are in place in the event of an accident.
FIRE PREVENTION TECHNIQUES
One of the most effective methods of preventing fires is good housekeeping. Good housekeeping requires keeping your workplace clear or clutter, debris, and combustible dust. Heat sources must be kept away from fuel whenever possible. An unclean, dusty, or cluttered workplace can cause a relatively minor fire to turn into a catastrophe. Every member of a workforce should be trained in good housekeeping procedures. These include:
- Keeping potential fuel sources away from ignition sources
- Regularly cleaning dust, grease, and other potentially flammable substances
- Cleaning all spills immediately
- Storing combustible materials in designated safe areas
Ignition Source Best Practices
To organize a workplace so that ignition sources are kept away from fuel, all potential ignition sources must first be identified. The most common ignition sources are electricity and flammable liquids. Flammable chemicals, including gases and solids, and well as personal items such as lighters and matches, can also cause fires.
One of the most common workplace ignition sources is electricity. To prevent accidental ignition due to electricity, make sure to:
- Keep electrical cabinets closed
- Ground electrical equipment
- Avoid overloading circuits or outlets with multiple devices
- Keep electrical equipment lubricated and clean
Many liquids that are used in industrial workplaces are also potential ignition sources. These include gasoline, oil, hydraulic fuel, paint, paint thinner, and other common liquids. Liquids can be especially dangerous because they can emit easily flammable vapors. For this reason, special handling and storage procedures for flammable liquids must be developed. Flammable liquids are categorized into four categories based on their flashpoints (the flashpoint is the point at which a liquid gives off a vapor in sufficient concentration to form an ignitable mixture with the air):
- Category 1: Liquids with a flashpoint below 73.4 degrees Fahrenheit and a boiling point at or below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Category 2: Liquids with a flashpoint below 73.4 degrees Fahrenheit and a boiling point above 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Category 3: Liquids with a flashpoint at or above 73.4 degrees Fahrenheit and at or below 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Category 4: Liquids with a flashpoint above 140 degrees Fahrenheit and at or below 199.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
This information and instructions for handling and storage will be found on the label and on the safety data sheet for each flammable liquid.
Flammable liquids must be stored in a segregated, properly ventilated area designated for this purpose. More than 60 gallons of Category 1 or 2 liquids or more than 120 gallons of Category 3 liquids must not be stored in a single cabinet. If transferring flammable liquids, designated and approved safety cans must be used.
Other Ignition Sources
In addition to electrical sources and flammable liquids, it is important to remember that common personal items may also be fuel sources. For instance, cell phones may produce static charges, which could ignite a fuel source. Smoking cigarettes can also be regarded as an ignition source. All smoking must occur in designated areas that are safely separated from fuel sources.
THE WRITTEN PLAN
A written fire prevention must be posted in the workplace and available for employees to review. The written plan must include:
- A list of all potential fire hazards.
- Handling and storage procedures for all hazardous materials.
- A comprehensive list of all ignition sources and the methods used to control them.
- The location and type of emergency fire equipment used to control fire hazards.
- Procedures to control and dispose of flammable and combustible waste
- Procedures to maintain safeguards on heat-producing machinery, and the name or job title of the employees responsible for maintenance.
- The name or job title responsible for controlling fuel source hazards.
It is essential to have a compliant, site-specific emergency response procedure in the event of a fire. Following the procedure calmly and carefully can save lives and prevent serious injuries. The procedure will contain information about exit routes, emergency personnel contact information, evacuation assembly points, and fire extinguisher locations.
Workers should not try to fight fires that spread beyond the immediate area of its origin. However, workers who might be exposed to fire hazards should be trained to use fire extinguishers correctly in the event of small, contained fires. To be effective, workers must know how to select the proper fire extinguisher and how to use it correctly.
Fires are categorized according to fuel type:
- Class A: Wood, paper, and some plastics
- Class B: Flammable liquids
- Class C: Electrical fires
- Class D: Fires fueled by combustible metals
The most commonly used fire extinguisher is the A-B-C extinguisher, which is effective against small fires belonging to categories A, B, and C. If your workplace stores or handles combustible metals, then you will also need class D extinguishers throughout your facility.
Preventing unplanned fires is a basic element of workplace safety. Fires can cause severe burns, respiratory illness, death, and extensive property damage. Therefore, it is essential to have a compliant fire prevention plan in place. It is important to remember that fire prevention is just one aspect of a compliant, comprehensive fire safety plan. Emergency response procedures, safe chemical handling and detailed exit route procedures are all aspects of an effective fire safety program. A list of and links to relevant OSHA standards can be found here: Injury statistics can be viewed here.