When fire breaks out on a worksite

Nobody goes to work expecting a fire to break out, except for professional firefighters. Yet many jobsites have products and processes that present an elevated risk for fires. Even common objects such as vehicles and gasoline-powered compressors can present fire hazards. Fires are always a surprise, and if workers (and jobsites) aren’t prepared, the results can be devastating in terms of both human lives and property damage.

That’s what happened at a food processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1991. A hydraulic line ruptured just a few feet from a natural gas-fired cooker, and the fluid burst into flame. There were 90 employees at the plant that day, and 25 of them perished in the fire, with 54 others suffering injuries.

It’s been estimated that there are more than 70,000 workplace fires in the U.S., causing thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths. Fires happen in manufacturing plants, on construction sites, and in offices. While it’s important to ensure that measures are in place to prevent fires, it’s just as important for workers to know what to do when they realize there’s a fire nearby. All the safety and firefighting equipment money can buy is useless if workers don’t know the right actions to take.

While there have been thousands of fires in America’s schools, the last reported fatality in a school fire occurred in 1958. What makes schools so different? Fire suppression equipment is one factor, but if you think back to your school days, you’ll remember the primary reason. In most states, students and staff participate in fire drills at least monthly. When the fire alarm sounds, teachers and students know exactly what to do. They evacuate the school and congregate at a set location. They practice so often that when a real fire breaks out, there’s rarely confusion or panic.

Fire drills on worksites and in workplaces are far less common, and often are just cursory exercises at which workers pay minimal attention. If fire drills were taken more seriously, and workers actually practiced basic fire suppression techniques, it’s possible that the effects of fires could be minimized.

What are the basic rules workers should know? The most important is that lives are more important than property, so the first thing to do when a fire is detected is to get everyone to safety. Depending upon the situation, that might involve evacuating a structure or simply moving a safe distance away from the fire. The second thing is to sound the alarm, whether that involves an actual fire alarm or calling 911 to notify local responders.

Workers also need to be made aware that smoke is typically more deadly than the fire itself. Because smoke rises, workers should stay low and move to areas that are ventilated. It’s not safe to walk into a smoke-filled area, even if co-workers are inside, because it’s likely that the individual will be overcome by smoke before being able to help anyone else.

Should workers try to extinguish the fire? That depends upon the size of the fire, what’s burning, the availability of the right tools, and the worker’s skills. If the fire is small and is contained to a small area, a worker who has been trained in the proper use of a fire extinguisher should attempt to put it out. People who have not received training may use extinguishers in ineffective ways, such as spraying the flames instead of sweeping the stream across the source of the fire, or by using the wrong type of extinguisher for the fire.  Depending on the circumstances, it may also be possible to use a tarp or blanket to snuff out the fire by eliminating its access to oxygen.

Evacuation should not be left up to chance. Fire exits and evacuation routes need to be clearly marked. Doors or walkways that shouldn’t be used should be marked accordingly. Workers should also be taught not to use elevators, and not to enter stairwells if they’re filled with smoke. Locations outside should be designated as reunification areas, so supervisors can verify that all workers have moved to safety.

Any workers how have been burned, suffered smoke inhalation, or were injured during the evacuation should be tended to immediately. Ideally, all workers receive training in basic first aid, so they can take care of basic needs until emergency medical personnel can respond.

As with most safety-related issues, thorough planning and training is the first step in properly preparing workers for fires. Your jobsite safety plan should address the potential for fire and ensure that fire extinguishers and other safety equipment are available. In developing that plan, it pays to perform an assessment that identifies potential hazards for fire and steps that can be taken to mitigate those hazards.

Finally, one of the best ways to reduce the risk of fire is to practice good housekeeping at the worksite. Vacuuming up dust and keeping the site clear of debris and other flammable materials can lead to a significant reduction in risk — and can limit the spread of any fires that do occur.

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