Organizations are vulnerable to a number of threats, both to their people and to their ability to maintain business continuity. From violent weather and natural disasters to power outages and acts of violence, an organization must deal with the pressure of preparing for the unexpected and protecting its people.
When it comes to a workplace fire incident, there are few scenarios more frightening.
Unpredictable, life-threatening, and difficult to recover from, a major fire in the workplace can disrupt operations for weeks or even months.
Protecting your organization from the threat of fires begins with prevention. While some situations are out of a company’s control (wildfires or arson, for example), most workplace fires can be avoided with a few extra precautions.
Assessing how your structure, facility, or site carries unique risks is the first step in understanding how to avoid a fire or mitigate the impact if one does occur. Designating a willing person (or persons) to handle fire safety will help with comprehensive oversight of your organization’s preparedness.
Tip #1: Assign Fire Safety Roles
If your organization hasn’t assigned at least one person (ideally, a team of people) to oversee fire safety, this should be your organization’s first priority.
Every business should find at least one person to serve as their Fire Warden. Some candidates who might make sense for the role include your company’s Office Manager, Facility Manager, Safety Manager, or Human Resources Manager.
This person or team should develop a clear understanding of what conditions might lead to a workplace fire and how your organization currently sizes up.
Fire Warden Tasks:
- Assist in implementing and improving effective emergency procedures in your workplace
- Conduct a thorough walkthrough of your company’s workspace to assess fire hazards
- Raise awareness (with both leadership and staff) about existing fire hazards
- Document risk areas and work with leadership to resolve them
- Help prevent emergencies by evaluating fire risk control measures
- Educate employees on how to respond to an emergency
- Plan and execute regular fire drills
- Continue with routine fire prevention walkthroughs
Keep in mind that it’s important to assign a specific person responsible for workplace fire risk and prevention.
Other fire safety tasks:
Someone needs to be in charge of overall fire prevention efforts. But if your organization is more than 50 people, fire planning can become complicated. You’ll need to build a team of responsible individuals who can help the Fire Warden with important tasks. Other duties that should be delegated to members of your team include:
- Maintaining accountability of individuals and reporting to leadership
- Ensuring doors are closed and evacuation routes are clear
- Assisting mobility-impaired staff
- Ensuring affected areas are clear and collecting stragglers
Tip #2: Identify Risks in the Workplace
The threat of most workplace fires could be extinguished well before the initial spark. In fact, there are a variety of factors that place a business at higher risk of a fire incident occurring. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) lists some of the most common causes of workplace fires in an effort to educate every employee. While the following list is not comprehensive, it does cover the most common workplace fire hazards:
- Cooking Appliances
- Electrical Wiring
- Power Strips (overloaded)
- Lighting Equipment
- Heating Appliances
- Smoking Materials
- Office/Entertainment Equipment
Common Causes of Workplace Fires
Your Fire Warden should conduct a thorough walkthrough of your organization’s structure, keeping a critical eye on the high-risk areas listed above. Once a potential hazard has been identified, they should develop plans to fix the issue, educate employees on proper use, or remove the risk entirely.
Tip #3: Pay Attention to Fire Prone Areas
Because there are varying factors from one industry to the next, there is no fire safety panacea that’s going to work across the board. That said, there are common areas within many conventional work environments that should be viewed as higher risk.
Just over one fifth of reported workplace fires over a five-year period started in an office kitchen or cooking area. Any structure with a kitchen containing a toaster oven, microwave, or heating appliance is vulnerable.
It should also be noted that while only 2% of fires began in a workplace’s ceiling/attic area, those fires were responsible for 13% of direct property damage. Of course, every area of the office should be given equal attention, but it’s helpful to understand fire prone areas of your workspace and what points of origin produce the most damage.
There are also precautions every business should take to lessen the impact if a fire does occur. These include minimizing loose paper throughout the office, properly storing flammable materials, and instructing all employees on fire response prevention and protocol.
Maintain functional appliances (both in the kitchen and elsewhere) and conduct routine electrical inspections to help mitigate the risk of a fire incident occurring.
Tip #4: Understand Industry Needs
In 1991, a Hamlet, North Carolina poultry plant with 90 employees inside went up in flames. One of the plant’s deep fryers ignited into a fireball that quickly spread throughout the structure. Many of the fire exits were locked, the building’s sprinkler system failed, and the company had no fire evacuation plan in place.
Sadly, 25 workers perished in the fire.
In its 11 years in operation, the plant had never received a proper safety inspection. It’s clear the loss of life could have been mitigated had the facility been equipped with a proper fire extinguishing system, functional exits, and a rehearsed evacuation plan.
Businesses will have specific industry considerations when it comes to fire safety. For example, the Hamlet poultry plant required a specialized carbon dioxide fire extinguisher above their fryers that likely would not exist outside of a food manufacturing or restaurant environment.
The banking industry, with a dispersed office environment, will have multiple branches to take into consideration. In addition to bank tellers and employees, banks will need to protect customers in the event of a structural fire.
Similarly, the health care industry has a wide variety of staff they’ll need to keep safe (nurses, doctors, technicians) as well as patients to consider in the event of a fire.
Understanding the industry-specific fire risks your place of business faces is essential to maintaining a safe work environment.
Tip #5: Educate Employees on Fire Safety Guidelines
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires organizations, depending on specific industry and hazardous materials present, to follow strict safety guidelines. In addition, businesses have a duty of care obligation to their employees. This legal and moral responsibility requires that employers do everything within their power to keep their people out of harm’s way.
But regardless of the legal obligation, every organization should be committed to a safe working environment. And that begins with education.
The following OSHA fire prevention guidelines can help businesses fulfill their duty of care and train employees on fire prevention and safety.
Every organization’s fire prevention plan should be done in writing, posted visibly in the workplace, and made available for all employees to review. Some key components:
- Clearly articulate all major fire hazards
- Instruct employees how to properly handle and store hazardous materials
- Educate employees on potential ignition sources and their control
- Communicate what fire protection equipment is in place to handle each major hazard
- Communicate evacuation protocol and how to use your company’s emergency notification system
- Include procedures to control accumulation of flammable and combustible waste materials
- Include safeguards installed on heat-producing equipment to prevent the accidental ignition of combustible materials
- Develop a list that contains the names/job titles of internal fire safety wardens
It should be noted that employers must inform their people of any fire hazards they could be exposed to while performing on the job. In addition, employers should also review the fire prevention plan with all employees.
Tip #6: Use a Fire Safety Checklist
Protecting your business from workplace fires starts with understanding the risks your organization faces. The task might feel overwhelming, which is why a simplified checklist is a great starting place.
AlertMedia produced a Fire Safety Checklist to help organizations both pre- and post-fire. Download this checklist today to ensure your bases are covered.
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