Where There’s Smoke: Fire Risks in the Workplace

By August 1, 2019 September 17th, 2019 Emergency Management, Safety and Security
workplace fire risks

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there were over 33,000 workplace fires from 2013–2017 totaling $1.5 billion in property loss. Understanding how a fire might originate is the first step organizations should take in protecting its people and assets.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a completely fireproof facility. There are simply too many factors present to safeguard against every hazard. While workplace fires are sometimes out of an organization’s control, understanding risk will help dramatically reduce the likelihood a fire will occur.

Every business will have unique considerations when it comes to workplace fire risks. There are some universal threats that apply across organizations, but specific industry/facility needs should be taken into account.

A food processing plant will have specialized equipment (deep fryers and heat exchangers) that put it at greater risk for a fire than an insurance company located in a high rise. That said, high rises carry inherent challenges you won’t find in a one-story facility—for example, siloed communication from one floor to the next.

Let’s break down some of the major fire risks by industry need and what organizations can do to proactively protect their people.

Workplace Fire Risks by Facility

Every organization is vulnerable to a fire occurring at their workplace. Depending on the nature of the work, specific structure, and industry considerations, organizations will need to assess their facility and develop a fire safety plan accordingly.

Industrial/Manufacturing Building

Because of a number of industrial elements and materials present within a manufacturing facility, there are numerous fire hazards that leadership will need to address. According to the NFPA, the top causes of manufacturing/industrial fires are:

Electrical equipment: Exposed wiring, overloaded outlets, and static discharge can all increase the risk of fire. Conduct routine inspections, maintenance, and personnel training on all your electrical equipment.

Lighting equipment: Improperly installed lighting and poorly placed fixtures pose a serious fire hazard. Conduct regular facility walkthroughs to ensure lighting is functional, properly installed, and free from fire hazards.

Combustible material: Many materials including dust, dyes, chemicals, and metals all have the potential to be combustible. Eliminate ignition sources when working with combustible materials and keep storage areas cool and dry.

Hot Work: Welding, heating, and soldering can produce 1000°F sparks, which can easily travel 35 feet. Ensure that personnel are properly trained, supervision is in place, and all materials are properly stored/handled.

Flammable liquids/gasses: These fires often occur at chemical plants due to the use of combustible gasses such as rocket fuel, acrylic acid, and crude oil. If you have these in your workplace, ensure they are properly stored and free from incompatible materials such as oxidizers.

If any part of your business is located in a manufacturing or industrial facility, you’ll want to factor in the most common hazards and include them in your fire safety plan.

High Rises/Office Properties

The column structure of a high-rise property makes it particularly dangerous when a fire occurs. But all office properties should be monitored for risks in an effort to prevent a fire incident.

Electrical Issues: As mentioned, exposed/faulty wiring and overloaded outlets can lead to electrical fires. Conduct routine inspection to ensure power strips aren’t overloaded and personal space heaters are prohibited or closely monitored. Regular electrical wiring inspection is also highly recommended.

Kitchen Appliances: According to the U.S. Fire Administration (part of FEMA), over 30% of all workplace fires in 2017 began in an office kitchen. Fire extinguishers should be located near kitchens and appliances should be fully functional.

Loose Papers: Fire needs fuel. Loose papers act as tinder and can exacerbate an already dangerous fire. Routine walkthroughs should be conducted to remove or contain combustible materials.

Smoking: An improperly extinguished cigarette butt can ignite a fire, especially in drought conditions. Properly installed ashtrays in designated smoking areas will help reduce the risk.

Whether your office is located 20 stories high or on the first floor of a one-level facility, a workplace fire can be dangerous, costly, and difficult to recover from. Identify and minimize risk to safeguard your business and protect your people.

Construction Sites

Whether it’s new construction or an existing building that’s being renovated, construction sites are some of the most vulnerable structures when it comes to fire hazards. The NFPA lists the following risks specific to the construction industry:

Unprotected Site: Because safety installations come at the end of the construction phase, construction areas are typically without fire protection systems such as sprinklers, smoke detectors, and fire alarms for extended periods of time. If you are the Fire Chief on-site, you should have a pre-fire plan ready and train all personnel.

Equipment: Where there’s welding, cutting, and soldering, there is the potential for sparks that could lead to a fire if proper safety procedures are not in place. Extra precaution should be taken during all fire-prone activities.

Vandalism: Construction sites usually have limited security measures in place, which makes them susceptible to trespassing, vandalism, and intentionally set fires (arson). Protective measures such as signage, fencing, and temporary security cameras can help deter criminal activity.

Regardless of your industry or the specific layout of your facility, every organization should conduct thorough, regular risk assessment to protect employees and safeguard the business from fire.

Fire Risks Every Business Should Consider

There are common risks that apply across industries and organizational structures. A company’s employee count, employee concentration within a structure, level of safety training, how the workforce is dispersed, and employee turnover rate are all factors that will need to be taken into consideration.

Your Fire Safety Team will need to conduct a thorough evaluation of your organization’s makeup. You’ll then want to adjust your fire safety program, which should include a fire evacuation plan for your business. For example, you’ll want to consider how you communicate across departments, building floors, and branch offices spread across geographic locations.

Once workplace fire risks have been identified, it’s time to implement a fire safety plan based on your findings. The process of building out an effective plan can feel overwhelming. Making use of a comprehensive checklist will help alleviate stress and serve to frame your overall approach.

The following list is designed to help organizations prepare both before a workplace fire and following an incident. While these items do capture main areas of concern, businesses will have unique needs to take into consideration.

Pre-Fire Checklist

Equipment & Tools

Assessing the condition of your organization’s safety equipment is an essential first step in fire proofing your workplace. Leadership should assign a Fire Safety Team to conduct routine inspection of your entire facility’s safety equipment and tools. They should ensure that:

  • Fire safety equipment is inspected and up-to-date (extinguishers, smoke alarms, sprinkler heads)
  • Company data is backed up both on-premises, off-premises, and in the cloud
  • You’ve invested in a reliable mass communication system to message your people before, during, and after a fire or emergency situation

Facility

Your organization’s Fire Safety Team should conduct a thorough walkthrough of your entire facility in an effort to assess its fire readiness. While every facility will have unique considerations (as mentioned in the risk portion of this article), the team should ensure that:

  • Fire exits are clearly marked, illuminated, and accessible
  • A safe meeting place has been established for staff
  • Walkways are clear (per building code requirements)
  • Evacuation plan has been posted in a location visible to all employees

Personnel & Training

A company’s greatest asset in fire preparedness is its people. Unfortunately, an unprepared team will panic if a fire breaks out. This can lead to slowed evacuation, misinformation, and ultimately lost lives. The Fire Safety Team should focus efforts on staff training to ensure a swift response and company-wide safety during a fire:

  • Fire Safety Team roles and responsibilities have been assigned
  • Staff is properly trained on all components of the evacuation plan
  • Staff is properly trained on the use of all fire safety equipment, location of extinguishers, and where fire exit routes are located
  • Staff is aware of workplace do’s and don’ts during a fire

Planning

It’s human nature to panic at the first hint of smoke. After all, there are few scenarios more frightening than a fire in the workplace. This is why thoughtful, well-informed planning is truly a life-saving measure. Your organization’s Fire Safety Team should ensure:

  • A thorough fire safety evacuation plan is built
  • Leadership is clear on how to conduct a fire drill: schedule, evacuation route, roles, and safe meeting location
  • Leadership has conducted a thorough audit of the facility for fire risks (see first half of this article for reference): exposed wiring, faulty kitchen appliances, loose papers, properly stored and labeled flammables/hazardous materials, and cluttered areas
  • A protocol is in place for post-fire messaging, status checks, and alternate working locations

Post-Fire Checklist

Communication

The window of time immediately following a fire is critical. Even the most orderly evacuation can leave individuals stranded inside the facility or at a location separate from the safe meeting place. Your organization should invest in a reliable emergency notification system to gain insight into every employee’s status. Whoever has been placed in charge of communications should ensure:

  • Safety wellness checks have been sent out to all employees immediately following fire incident
  • Fire has been communicated externally: customers, partners, investors, community
  • Fire debrief conducted to assess cause of fire, company-wide response to fire, and what could have been done differently
  • Instructions have been sent regarding office closure/reopening and alternate working sites
  • Employees have been educated on cause of fire and how to avoid fire risks in the future
  • Resources for impacted employees (psychological/financial) have been communicated

Assessment

Once the smoke has cleared and your organization begins the recovery process, you’ll want to take inventory of the damage both for insurance purposes and to evaluate measures that can be taken to prevent future workplace fires. Your Fire Safety team should:

  • Conduct a walkthrough (once safe) to assess fire/water damage to structure, equipment, devices, and additional assets
  • Take photos and video and make written documentation for potential insurance claims

Learning

While some fires are simply unavoidable, there are always lessons to be learned in the aftermath of any emergency. Your Fire Safety Team should:

  • Make plans to better fireproof the workspace
  • Modify fire drill procedure based on post-fire findings
  • Communicate findings to every employee

If any of these items are left unchecked, you could be putting lives in danger. Revisit any areas that feel weak or could use more attention. “Better safe than sorry” is never more applicable than when your employees and business are at risk.

Looking for a way to help keep your people safe throughout the entire duration of a dangerous fire?

AlertMedia is the leader in emergency communication systems. Thanks to two-way messaging, an intuitive user interface, and 24/7 customer support, you can rest easy knowing you’re prepared in the event of a workplace fire.

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