Imagine this: Your employees are busy working when someone notices smoke billowing out from behind some machinery. As he gets closer, he sees flames. He grabs the nearest fire extinguisher and starts to spray. Within minutes, the fire is under control. The employee is a hero.

Sound too good to be true? Maybe. For instance, what if your worker didn’t know how to use the extinguisher? What if the extinguisher didn’t work? Or, what if he used the wrong extinguisher, and the flames increased?

These problems could occur if training on the use of fire extinguishers is not provided. Placing a few fire extinguishers here and there and expecting your employees to know how to use them won’t suffice.

Let’s look at seven key strategies to fire extinguisher training in the workplace.

1) Who gets trained?

Fighting a fire is risky. Employers must assess whether or not they want their employees involved in something the fire department really should handle. OSHA only requires you to train employees in fire extinguisher use if you want them to fight fires.

If you specify in your emergency action plan and communicate to your employees that they should always evacuate in case of fire, then they don’t need to be trained to fight fires. At the other extreme, facilities with fire brigades need to provide extensive training to these employees.

A smart approach is to train and expect workers to use extinguishers to fight small, contained fires, such as in a wastebasket, but require them to evacuate if the fire is larger or out of control. Having trained workers ready to extinguish small fires, rather than waiting for the fire department to arrive, can keep potential damage and costs to a minimum.

2) ABCs of fire extinguishers

Step one in training your employees to control fires is to teach them about the four basic types of extinguishers and their uses:

Class A — Used for ordinary fires that burn wood, paper, trash, rags or cloth; controls the fire by wetting down and cooling the flames.

Class B — Puts out fires that involve gases or flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil, paint, solvents and grease, by cutting off oxygen or reducing flame.

Class C — Used on electrical equipment and wiring; contains carbon dioxide or a dry chemical instead of water. WARNING: Never use water on an electrical fire.

Class D — Used for combustible metal fires, such as aluminum, sodium, magnesium or zinc.

Combination ABC or BC — Used for fires that involve combinations of the A, B and C classes.

3) Location, location

Extinguishers should be conspicuously located and readily accessible. Place them along normal paths of travel and egress. If the extinguisher is not visible, post arrows on the wall pointing the way to it. Operating instructions on the extinguisher should face outward.

Travel distance for Class A and D extinguishers should not exceed 75 feet; Class B is 50 feet. There is no maximum for Class C extinguishers. Classification markings must be clearly visible.

4) Will it work?

Follow a regular inspection and maintenance program for your fire extinguishers. OSHA requires you to inspect the extinguishers at least once a year to verify their working condition. Mark the inspection tag with the date to document your inspection.

5) Using an extinguisher

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) advises people to remember the word “PASS,” which spells out the steps to take when using a fire extinguisher:

  • Pull the pin on the unit (some types require you to Press a lever);
  • Aim at the base of the fire, standing about eight feet away;
  • Squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent;
  • Sweep from side to side until the fire is out.

Never turn your back on a fire, even if it looks like it is out. It could flash up again, so you might need to continue spraying.

6) Don’t be a hero

Even if your employees are well trained on using fire extinguishers, you still need to explain that when a fire is too large for them to handle on their own they need to evacuate immediately and call the fire brigade or fire department.

7) Training tips

Hands-on training works best with fire prevention and extinguisher use. Take the training group on a tour of your facility and point out the different types of fire extinguishers. Look for potential fire hazards along the way, such as greasy rags, frayed wiring or blocked exits. Practice using the extinguishers outside on a “pretend” fire or ask the local fire department to give a demonstration.