In October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire raged through the city, killing more than 250 people. It left over 100,000 Chicago residents homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 buildings and burned over 2,000 acres. The blame for the fire was pegged on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. The bovine was accused of kicking over a gas lantern and starting one of the most infamous fires in our national history.

Of course, over a century ago, people didn’t know what we now know about fire prevention. Today we have OSHA guidelines, we have learned from past fires, we know how to handle and store chemicals, and we know what the hazards are. But, how fire smart are we?

The facts are, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), that each year more than 4,000 Americans die in fires, over 25,000 are injured, and $8.6 billion is lost in property and damage. When I began my research for this article, I spoke with two local Grand Rapids, Mich., fire department officials. I was looking to find a new angle on fire prevention, perhaps something we haven’t heard before. However, according to the feedback I received, teaching best practices is still the best remedy for preventing fires and saving lives.

Good housekeeping

Poor housekeeping is one of the leading causes of workplace fires. Conduct a hazard analysis of the work area to determine potential fuel sources and heat sources; anything that will burn when exposed to heat is fuel for a fire. Dirty rags, solvents, paper, sawdust, paint cans, cardboard boxes and pallets are all potential fuel sources. Heat sources include frayed electrical cords, electric motors, or sparks from welding torches. Keep heat sources and fuel sources separate through proper disposal and storage.

Employees who smoke should do so only in designated areas. Enclosed and fireproof cigarette disposals should be used to prevent blowing cigarette butts or live ashes. The temperature of ashes from a cigarette can be as high as 1,200°F. If ash or a live cigarette butt comes in contact with a combustible substance, fire can result.

Good housekeeping means keeping waste to a minimum, equipment well maintained, and an organized system of storage. It is a team effort that involves everyone’s participation. A cluttered or messy work environment not only increases the chances of fire, it can turn a small fire into a major disaster. The more fuel available for a fire, the quicker it can get out of hand.

Safe electrical practices

Electricity is a common ignition source for fires. Inspect electrical equipment before each use to ensure that it is in proper working order. Check for faulty wiring and make sure electrical cords are secure, and not frayed or broken. Equipment should be grounded and switch boxes and junction covers closed.

Never overload a circuit with multiple electric devices and never store anything on top of circuit boxes. If you use extension cords, ensure that the wattage matches or is larger than the wattage of the appliances that you plug into them. Keep electrical devices and motors well maintained and lubricated to prevent malfunctions and overheating.


Flammable liquids and vapors are very common in the work environment; so common that we may take for granted their potential to be an ignition source. Flammable liquids include hydraulic fluid, gasoline, oil, electrical insulating fluid, paint thinner, chemicals and adhesives. The danger lies in a liquid’s ability to emit vapors that can be easily ignited.

Flammable liquids must be segregated in their own storage area. Drums must be properly ventilated to prevent vapor pressure buildup. Improper ventilation can cause drums to leak or rupture, causing an explosion. Flammable liquids are divided into classes; classification for these materials can be found on their container labels and in the material safety data sheets. This information will tell you how the substance should be stored and handled. It is important to follow these guidelines to reduce the risk of a common workplace substance turning into an ignition source.

In the event of a fire

It is important that all employees at your site know the evacuation route and alarm sound in the event a fire occurs. Emergency exits should be clearly labeled and kept free of obstructions or damage. Teaching emergency procedures, such as exit routes and proper communication, should be done when a new employee is hired and at least once a year as a refresher to employees. If emergency procedures are not clearly defined, panic can occur. Employees should know where to evacuate and should stay in the assembly point until the “all clear” notification has been sounded.

Only trained and authorized employees should use fire extinguishers. Different extinguishers are used depending on the type of fire. When using an extinguisher remember PASS – Pull the pin, Aim low pointing at the base of the fire, Squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent, and Sweep from side to side to prevent the fire from spreading. Always leave an exit; do not let the fire get between you and a safe way out.

Be aware of fire hazards at all times during your workday. Know where the nearest fire alarm, fire extinguisher, phone and emergency exit are at your worksite. Fire prevention begins with the knowledge of what fire is and your commitment to keep heat and fuel sources separate. Protect yourself, your company and your co-workers from the damages of fire through the best defense… prevention.


Ohio Industrial Commission – Job Site Fire Prevention
“Fire! Are You Ready,” Vandervort, Don;
Fire Prevention, Summit Training Source Inc.

SIDEBAR: 7 simple steps to a “Life Safety Plan” for your building

The true test of your building’s “Life Safety Plan” is based on how well you’ve equipped the building with equipment and devices, and the way individuals respond to emergencies. Fire Equipment Manufacturers’ Association has put together seven steps to life safety that are sure to increase your chances of saving lives and protecting property in your building or facility.

1) Know the codes. Codes and standards are bare minimum requirements for buildings. Just meeting the codes does not mean that building owners are doing enough. Good life safety planning relies upon creating a program where building owners are doing more than what is asked of them.

Fire protection equipment is legislated by city, state and federal laws, many of them directly adopted or adapted from model code-making organizations, such as the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

2) Assess your building. Know and understand the functions of your building. What types of people come into the building? Does it include an oxygen-enriched environment? Does it contain flammable or combustible materials? Does it have commercial cooking appliances in a kitchen or eating area? Is the building constructed with a steel or wood frame?

3) Portable fire extinguishers. NFPA 10 is the standard for portable fire extinguishers. It mandates the type, size, placement, and number of extinguishers required for your building. Keep in mind, again, that the code requires only the minimum number of extinguishers. Assess your building and the hazards involved and consider exceeding these requirements.

4) Standpipe fire hose stations. In addition to portable fire extinguishers, standpipe fire hose stations allow a fast response to fire before it has time to spread.

5) Fire suppression systems. A pre-engineered fire suppression system is mandated by NFPA standards in special hazard situations, which can involve restaurants and industrial areas. Fire suppression systems provide fast, on-site protection at the earliest stage of a fire.

6) Evacuation plan. Exit signage and emergency communications are important components of escape planning. Every building should have well-lit and visibly placed signs to indicate where exits are located, and building occupants should practice escape planning regularly.

7) Training and education. Key personnel must be properly trained according to their specified responsibilities, and all training documentation must be kept on file within the human resources department of each business. While fire protection training is a key component of a Life Safety Plan, other training should also be included such as CPR and first-aid, which can often go hand-in-hand with fire protection preparedness.

Source: Fire Equipment Manufacturers’ Association (FEMA, The Life Safety Group)