On an average day, there are more than 200 workplace fires in America. Annually, those fires kill hundreds of workers, injure many thousands more and cost American businesses billions of dollars in damage and lost productivity.

A prime example is last year’s BP disaster. A release of hydrocarbon liquid and vapor at the BP America oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, ignited. Seconds later, a powerful explosion devastated the facility, left 15 dead and about 100 others injured.

Unfortunately, there are dozens of ways workplace fires can start. As safety personnel, you have to be on top of potential fire hazards diligently to make sure your facility doesn’t become part of the deadly statistics.

Telltale signs

A successful fire prevention program begins with identifying all potential fire hazards. Here’s a list to help you start:
  • Scrap and trash. When waste materials are allowed to build up, the danger of fire increases. All it takes is an ignition source to get a fire going, and then the fire has plenty of fuel on which to feed.
  • Dust. An excess of dust or powder in the air from wood, plastic or metal operations can, if ignited, cause an explosion.
  • Flammable liquids. Improper handling, storage or disposal of flammable liquids used in production processes, as fuel sources, or for cleaning operations, is a leading cause of workplace fires.
  • Combustible materials. Ordinary combustibles like paper, cardboard, cloth and wood, or products made from these materials, can create fire hazards as well. Other combustible materials, such as oily rags or other materials soaked with oil, can spontaneously combust if left carelessly lying around.
  • Electrical problems. Overloaded circuits and outlets, damaged wiring, defective switches, and damaged plugs can all lead to dangerous electrical fires. Electric coffee makers, fans, space heaters and other appliances used by employees are also potential fire hazards.
  • Heat and ignition sources. Any source of heat or ignition (such as a spark) can lead to a fire when combined with combustible or flammable materials.
  • Machinery. Inadequately lubricated or dirty machines can overheat and start a fire. Electrical problems and mechanical defects can also cause fires.
  • Smoking. Although smoking is likely prohibited except in designated areas, employees may ignore the rules and sneak a smoke in restrooms or some low-traffic hideaway. A smoker might toss a match or cigarette butt into a wastebasket thinking it’s extinguished when, in fact, it’s still burning.

10 simple strategies

After identifying the hazards, the next step is to eliminate or control them.
1) Inspect all areas of your department for fire hazards on a regular basis. Pay particular attention to areas where fires are most likely to occur. More than half of industrial fires occur in everyday work areas. Another large percentage occurs in storage areas.

2) Educate employees about fire hazards. Use bulletin boards, memos and safety meetings to distribute fire prevention information. Update your training whenever new equipment or processes introduce new hazards.

3) Make sure you have the right fire extinguishers for the fire hazards in your work areas, and check regularly to see if they are properly charged. If you expect your employees to use extinguishers in the event of a fire, be sure they’re properly trained to handle an extinguisher effectively.

4) Store materials safely. Keep storage areas well ventilated and free of ignition sources. Be particularly careful with flammables.

5) Dispose of wastes promptly and correctly. Don’t allow combustible waste materials to build up. Consider the ease of ignition when disposing of materials as well. For example, oily rags should be disposed of in closed metal containers.

6) Emphasize good housekeeping. All work areas should be clean and free of fire hazards. 7) Make sure ventilation systems operate effectively to remove flammable vapors, combustible dusts and powders from the air.

8) Service machines regularly. Set up an adequate maintenance schedule, and make sure employees follow it.

9) Pay careful attention to electrical issues. Check electrical circuits, outlets, wires, and plugs regularly so that an electrical problem does not start a fire. If you allow employees to use coffeemakers, fans and other appliances, make sure they are used safely and turned off at the end of the shift.

10) Enforce fire safety rules. Make sure employees obey “No Smoking” policies and other fire safety rules. Be prepared to discipline rule-breakers.

Review your program

How long has it been since you’ve reviewed your department’s fire prevention program? Take some time now to make sure your department is fireproof.

Sidebar: Fire Prevention Plan Requirements

See 29 CFR 1910.39 for:
  • A list of all major fire hazards.
  • Proper handling and storage procedures for hazardous materials.
  • Potential ignition sources and the means used to control them.
  • A list of fire protection equipment necessary to control each fire hazard.
  • Procedures used to control accumulations of flammable and combustible waste materials.
  • Procedures for regular inspection and maintenance of safeguards installed on heat-producing equipment.
  • Names or job titles of employees responsible for implementing the fire prevention plan.
Training requirements — Employers must:
  • Inform employees of fire hazards to which they may be exposed.
  • Explain the fire prevention plan to all employees (and don’t forget new hires).
  • Review the plan with specific employees when they are assigned to new job duties with different potential fire hazards.
  • Go over the plan again with all employees whenever any changes are made to the plan.