Preparing For and Responding to Fires

By Safety Management Group

When we think about workplace hazards, we tend to think about situations related to tools, equipment, or slips and falls. But one of the most potentially dangerous hazards on nearly every jobsite is fire.

Fires are inherently destructive. Even if a fire is contained quickly, it can cause substantial damage to facilities and equipment, along with life-threatening injuries to workers and others. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate the potential for fires, there are many steps that can be taken to prevent them, and to minimize the damage they create.

A comprehensive fire safety plan will examine the potential hazards on the worksite, identify strategies for prevention, note the appropriate fire suppression equipment given the nature of the hazards, and include training on what to do if a fire occurs.

For a fire safety plan to succeed, everyone on the site must take responsibility. Managers need to verify that the plan is in place, confirm that all fire suppression equipment is tested and inspected regularly, and verify that employees are properly trained. Supervisors need to oversee tasks to ensure that the proper steps are being taken to reduce risks, and that any flammable items are handled correctly. And workers must act in accordance with training and perform their tasks safely. Everyone on the site must be willing to report any violations that put workers or the site at risk.

Controlling typical hazards
While every site is different, each includes specific types of hazards. Among the most common are flammable liquids and other materials that are stored improperly, equipment using flammable fuels that is improperly maintained, accumulations of flammable trash and waste materials, and violations of safety policies, such as restricted access to fire suppression equipment or workers smoking on the jobsite.

One of the best ways to minimize the chance of fire (and reduce the potential spread should a fire erupt) is to keep the worksite clean of combustible materials and debris. Scrap and other flammable debris should be stored neatly (in approved containers, if possible) and removed from the site regularly. Flammable liquids and gases should be stored and transported according to fire regulations, using approved containers.

Tasks that have the potential to trigger sparks and fire — such as grinding metal or welding — should be evaluated before work begins to ensure that hazards have been removed or mitigated. For example, if cutting metal will generate sparks, containers of flammable liquids should be moved a safe distance away. The same is true for other ignition sources, such as portable heaters and cutting torches.

Preparing the site
An alarm system that provides both audible and visual signals should be established on the worksite to ensure that warnings can be communicated to all workers immediately. Emergency exists and escape paths should be identified (and updated in situations such as construction projects that involve reconfiguring the site). Exit doors must be clearly marked, and any doors or areas that could be mistaken for a safe egress should be marked with a “Not an Exit” sign. If any workers on the site have disabilities, their supervisors must be aware of their evacuation plans, and a second person should be designated to help with evacuation if the supervisor is unavailable.

All workers should be trained on the proper procedure for reporting a fire, and contact information for facility and local fire departments should be prominent displayed by all phones, on bulletin boards, and in other highly visible areas.

The first line of defense
On most worksites, the first line of fire defense is provided by fire extinguishers and similar fire suppression equipment. While these devices appear to be simple, they are significantly more effective when operated properly, so thorough training is a must.

Different types of extinguishers should be placed near the types of hazards with which they are associated. As an example, Class A extinguishers are used to fight fires involving wood and paper, while Class C extinguishers are made for electrical fires. Workers must be trained in choice and operation of extinguishers, so they don’t use the wrong equipment, such as trying to fight an electrical fire with a water hose.

Extinguishers must be mounted at the correct height, and their locations should be clearly identified so that workers can find them immediately in the event of a fire and tell quickly whether the extinguisher is the right type for the fire.

When fires occur
If a worker discovers a fire, he or she must immediately activate the firm alarm, and alert fellow workers and supervisors to the danger.

While a common reaction is to reach for the nearest fire extinguisher, workers should not attempt to extinguish the fire until the facility’s or local fire department has been notified of the fire. Even then, the workers should not use extinguishers unless the first is small and has not spread beyond the area of origin. Most important, workers should not place themselves into a situation from which they will not be able to evacuate. If they’re not certain of their own safety, they must leave immediately.

When evacuating, if time allows, workers should close windows and doors and shut down sources of flammable materials, such as gas lines. Once outside the worksite, they should assemble in the designated area so supervisors can verify that everyone has evacuated. Finally, they should not re-enter the worksite until an authority such as the fire department has confirmed that they may safely do so.

Fire drills and practice with extinguishers may seem to be a waste of time, but when confronted with a real emergency, workers who have been properly trained are more likely to survive without injuries and will keep damage to a minimum. That’s a priceless return on investment.

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