On an average day, over 200 fires occur in U.S. workplaces, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 143 workers died from fires in 2011. According to OSHA, more than 5,000 are injured annually in explosions and fires on the job, and the annual cost of workplace fires to American businesses is over $2 billion.
“The statistics are staggering,” said Leo J. DeBobes, assistant administrator for Emergency Management and Regulatory Compliance at Stony Brook University Medical Center in Stony Brook, N.Y.
Having a complete fire prevention program in place is crucial for employee safety and facility compliance, DeBobes explained in a recent webinar on effective workplace fire protection. He pointed out the critical role human resources professionals play in workplace fire prevention: “training, training, training.”
“We can readily anticipate and control these types of hazards. We work on the assumption that all unsafe conditions can be anticipated and controlled and accidents should be able to be prevented,” DeBobes said.
“If there is no safety or fire department as a part of the corporation, it’s important that human resources make sure that training does occur,” DeBobes said. This might include hazard communication training which could alert employees to where flammable materials exist in the workplace, training employees on the fire prevention plan and the emergency action plan, and training employees on how to use fire extinguishers, he said.
“In many cases, HR are the multiple hatters,” he said. “HR is the security department, the safety department, and the fire brigade,” he added.
Escape Routes Must Be Clearly Marked
It is important to have at least two means of escape that are remote from each other that are to be used in a fire emergency, DeBobes stressed.
“The number of exits and path of exit travel is very significant to emergency evacuation planning,” he said. Do not allow fire doors to be blocked or locked when employees are in the building unless you have an approved alarm system integrated in the fire door design.
OSHA requires all workplaces to have adequate exits and unobstructed escape routes in case of fire. The number of exits required for all employees to exit safely depends on several factors, including whether the facility uses substances that are at a high risk for combustion, the layout of the building and the type of construction materials used. Fire exit signs must also be posted.
Exit doors need to swing in the direction of exit travel if a space is a high hazard area, DeBobes noted.
Emergency Action Plans
Have a written emergency action plan for evacuation of employees that describes the routes to be used and procedures to be followed, DeBobes said. The plan must be made available for employee review and include procedures for accounting for all evacuated employees.
Ensure a plan exists for employees and visitors with disabilities, he said.
The plan must also include procedures for employees who must remain behind temporarily to shut down critical plant equipment before they evacuate.
Ensure that an employee alarm system is available throughout the workplace and ensure that all employees are trained and know what is to be done in an emergency, he said.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire alarms are often disabled because they are viewed as a nuisance. Employers should ensure all alarms are activated, in working order and have battery backup. Test them regularly and consider interconnecting all alarms so that the deployment of one alarm sets off all alarms in the building, alerting all building occupants, the association recommended.
“Review the emergency plan with new hires. Hold fire drills to make sure that people really do understand where they need to go,” DeBobes said.
“Workplace fire safety begins with proper planning and training. And that training needs to come from HR,” he said. 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 any time changes are made. OSHA requires most employers to make emergency action plans readily available for employees to review.
Fire Prevention Policies
OSHA requires some employers to have fire prevention policies. This helps reduce the need for frequent emergency evacuations, which cost a company time and money, DeBobes said. As with the emergency action plans, a fire prevention policy should be made available to all employees. All employees are usually required to review the policy any time it changes. A fire prevention policy should address issues such as how to store any combustible products like cleaners and other materials, a plan for a quick and thorough cleanup of any flammable chemical spills and how to handle flammable waste.
Some workplaces are required to or choose to install fixed extinguishing systems. In-house sprinklers are the “best thing you can have,” said DeBobes.
They detect fire immediately and extinguish it before the fire can spread, he said. If the workplace includes this type of system, employers are required to include the system in their action plan. They must also train a select group of employees on how to act in case the system malfunctions. Employers may also supply portable fire extinguishers, as long as they properly train employees on how to use them and include this information in the emergency action plan, according to OSHA.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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