Every year in workplaces across the United States, there are at least 70,000 serious fires, according to Maine Municipal Association (MMA) Risk Management Services. Canadian statistics are hard to come by, but there are more than 1,500 industrial fires across Canada every year, according to Workplace Safety North.
Of these fires, about 85 percent are caused by human factors. MMA says that by being proactive, with a simple fire prevention plan and program, you can dramatically reduce the chances of a fire in your workplace.
Developing an effective fire prevention plan requires evaluating each building or workplace for common and special fire hazards and then assigning and maintaining control measures to address these hazards.
Here, according to MMA, are some common fire hazards and control measures:
1. Heating equipment: Improperly installed, operated or maintained furnaces and other heating equipment can lead to a fire. Control measures include ensuring that heating equipment is installed by a licensed technician and serviced annually; maintaining minimum clearance distances on all four sides for furnaces or heaters; never storing combustible materials in furnace rooms and avoiding the use of temporary heating units in public buildings. If temporary heaters must be used, they should be approved by a recognized authority such as Underwriters Laboratories or CSA International; equipped with tip-over protection and used in strict accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
2. Electrical: Misused, overloaded, damaged or improperly maintained electrical equipment is a very common cause of workplace fires. Air vents on electrical and electronic equipment must never be blocked and should be kept free of dust. Extension cords should only be used for providing temporary power—never as a replacement for permanent wiring. They should never be run through walls or above ceilings, attached to building surfaces or placed where they could be crushed or pinched. Cords should never be left coiled up while plugged in, because doing so can cause inductive heating that damages cord insulation and could start a fire. Multiple outlet strips should be used only if they have surge protectors and only for powering computer equipment—not appliances or devices that draw heavy current. Circuit breakers should be “exercised” every six months, by turning them on and off, to ensure proper function.
3. Conventional cooking: Microwave ovens, coffee makers and stoves used for food warming can cause fires if misused. Never leave cooking food unattended; ensure that all break and lunch rooms are equipped with smoke detectors; keep combustible items away from stovetops; and follow microwave container recommendations and popcorn popping instructions carefully.
4. Laundry: Misused or improperly maintained washers and dryers can cause fires. Do not overload washers or dryers. Clean lint traps before use and periodically clean dryer ducts. Ensure that dryer ducts are approved for that purpose. Many hardware stores sell ventilation ducting that is not rated for dryer exhaust temperatures. Never launder clothing that has been contaminated with gasoline or other flammable liquids.
5. Mechanical friction: Improperly maintained or cleaned mechanical equipment can lead to fires. Keep bearings on ventilation equipment and conveyors properly lubricated and aligned. Conveyors and mobile equipment such as loaders and forklifts should be kept clean and free of accumulations of combustible dust and other materials.
6. Housekeeping: Poor housekeeping can lead to fires and increase the severity of fires from other causes. Stored materials must not obstruct exits, walkways, electrical panels or emergency equipment. Combustible materials, including boxes, should not be stored close to heat sources and stored materials should not be placed within 18 inches (46 centimetres) of fire sprinkler heads.
7. Proximity hazards: Hazards outside of buildings can expose workers to the risk of fire. Other buildings within 100 feet (30 metres) pose a fire risk and should be considered in emergency plans. Fuel tanks near buildings should be installed to current codes and protected from vehicle collisions by barricades. Dumpsters should be placed at least 30 feet (nine metres) from buildings to prevent dumpster fires from reaching structures and weeds, grass, and brush should be kept mowed back at least 30 feet (nine metres) from buildings to avoid fire exposure during the wildfire season.
8. Smoking: Unauthorized smoking or poor setup of smoking areas can cause fires. Smoking in public buildings is prohibited in many North American jurisdictions. Unauthorized smoking in buildings must be stopped if it exists. Outdoor smoking areas should be located well away from fuel tanks; landscaping that has chips or mulch; dumpsters; and building air intakes. Cigarette butt cans should be of the self-extinguishing type.