Workplace Fire Prevention
ALBERT MITCHELL, GSP
Workplace Safety Division
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Good housekeeping practices are usually interpreted as common-sense measures to an effective fire prevention plan. Workplaces or homes that practice poor housekeeping often have extensive fire safety deficiencies. A professional and extensive background in fire safety or protection is not necessary for the recognition of poor housekeeping signs that increase the potential for fires.
Safe housekeeping practices are not limited to just the indoors. Both indoor and outdoor housekeeping practices include four major life safety basics:
- Eliminate excessive or unwanted fuels.
- Do not obstruct or impede egress routes.
- Regulate sources of ignition.
- Improve safety for emergency response personnel.
Keeping your workplace neat and clean significantly reduces the risk of fire and provides the added benefit of lowered worker injury rates, lowered cost of repairs and, ultimately, improved employee morale. In turn, a higher worker morale rate equates to increased worker efficiency and participation in safety programs or unit functions. There are three basic fundamentals for good housekeeping:
- Equipment arrangement and layout. There are times when the location of certain equipment increases the fire risk such as dust-producing equipment located near ignition sources. Ensure proper equipment maintenance (cleaning, servicing, etc.) is being conducted and the generation of (combustible) dust is minimized and controlled with appropriate ventilation.
- Storage and handling of materials. This includes the disposal of trash and waste found inside and outside of facilities and proper storage of combustibles.
- Operational cleanliness. This includes frequent emptying of trash receptacles to avoid accumulation and keeping your workspace clear of debris. If you work with combustible or flammable liquids, be mindful of the storage of rags, cleanliness of equipment and spillage requirements.
Facility exteriors require frequent inspection intervals similar to interiors. Sometimes the need for exterior housekeeping may not seem apparent because of complacency or a false sense of security that has developed due to the monotony of working at the same site for prolonged periods of time. Inadequate exterior housekeeping practices pose more than just fire threats; they also obstruct egress routes and can hinder emergency action by increasing the difficulty of access to the facility by emergency personnel.
Examples of access obstructions include roads, driveways, fire lanes and hydrants that are blocked by trash, debris, dumpsters, snow and sometimes overgrown trees and bushes. Unobstructed postings of an address or premise identification must be visible from the road as per the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) code. It is extremely crucial that fire, law enforcement and other emergency personnel be able to locate the building quickly.
Other exterior risks include allowing the accumulation of combustible material near facilities and workspaces. Combustible material from manufacturing, industrial, construction and shipping processes are often stored onsite for prolonged periods of time. Combustible waste, trash and debris should never be allowed to collect near flammable or combustible liquid or gas. Waste receptacles and dumpsters are required to be at least 10 feet from combustible buildings (NFPA 1) and should not be placed under overhangs or roof eaves. Interior issues
An organization that keeps its operations clean and neat significantly reduces the chances of a fire. Oily wastes and rags are commonly found in motor pools, cooking operations, paint-spraying operations, industrial occupancies and building maintenance areas. These wastes and rags should be stored in metal containers with tight-fitting covers to lower the risk of spontaneous ignition. Spontaneous ignition is the combustion of a material by chemical or biological reaction that produces sufficient heat to ignite the material in contact. These materials include linseed oil, tung oil, charcoal and certain vegetable oils (peanut oil).
Combustible dust is small particles that may become airborne as a result of a food manufacturing, agricultural and industrial processes, including flour, starches, sugars; woodworking operations for sawdust; and coal mining operations. Dust accumulation must be minimized through proper and sufficient ventilation or removal techniques such as vacuuming or suctioning and the use of a hopper or cyclone for storage. Compressed air should never be used to clean dusty surfaces, as this process makes the material airborne, which increases the probability of explosions and inhalation. Storage of combustible material
Improperly stored combustible material is often the result of inadequate storage space availability. One of the most common safety violations is the storage of combustibles in areas where they block or impede egress routes. One other common area to consider is the storage of combustible material under stairs. In exigent circumstances, if this material were ignited, the fire can damage the stairs, resulting in the interference or blocking of an egress route. Ignition sources such as boilers, furnaces, water heaters and heat-producing appliances should be well separated from combustible materials. Combustible and flammable liquids
There is always an inherent risk of spillage whenever flammable or combustible liquids are used. Containment and storage requirements for flammable materials are governed under 29 CFR 1910.106 for general industry and 29 CFR 1926.152 for the construction industry. An emergency response plan is also required for units handling flammable or combustible liquids that covers identification and control measures in case of fire and spillage. Generally speaking, an adequate supply of absorptive materials may be used for relatively small quantities (under 5 gallons maximum). If large spills are anticipated, spill control plans should cover the use of containment systems or dikes to prevent the spillage from reaching sewers, streams, rivers or lakes. Fixing housekeeping issues
Some ways to correct bad housekeeping include:
- Reducing the sources of ignition. Maintaining safe separation distances between heat or ignition sources and combustible/flammable materials. These distances are spelled out in NFPA 1.
- Spontaneous ignition materials should be stored in metal containers with auto-closing and tight-fitting lids. This includes oil-soaked rags or used absorptive material.
- Excessive heat due to friction. Cleaning and proper maintenance of machinery is key to preventing fires. Well-maintained equipment (i.e., lubricated bearings in motors) allows the equipment to correctly dissipate heat, which lowers the operating temperature.
- Providing access to the worksite/building, fire-protection systems and adequate egress routes. Emergency personnel will need quick access to hydrants, sprinkler connections and control panels. Life safety is always the number one priority. Be cognizant of anything that blocks or impedes the ability to get in or out of the building. This is one of the most common housekeeping problems. Finally, incorrect storage of materials that block egress paths must be corrected quickly.
For more information on workplace housekeeping and fire prevention, visit the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center website at https://safety.army.mil/ON-DUTY/Workplace.
Did You Know?
This year’s Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 3-9. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sponsors the observance in an effort to decrease casualties caused by fires. For more information about Fire Prevention Week, as well as a wealth of fire safety products, visit the NFPA website at https://www.nfpa.org/Events/Events/Fire-Prevention-Week/About.