Fire is both one of the most destructive of industrial accidents and one of the most preventable. Some tips for fire safety in the workplace.
Industrial sites abound with fire hazards. Electrical and electronic equipment, volatiles, paper and wood waste have all been found to cause fires in the workplace. There needn’t be any negligence, either to have caused a fire, electrical fires in particular are common when equipment breaks down, and are often the first indication of trouble. With this kind of history, how can the workplace be made safer?
The first thing to do is see that cleanliness standards are being met. One of the most common means for a fire to transform from a small problem to a conflagration is when it begins to burn waste materials left lying around the production floor: Oily and paint-soaked rags; Wood dust; Piles of paper waste. Nothing will make waste paint less flammable, but, if it is removed to a proper waste unit, the risk that it presents can be eliminated. There are similar storage units available for oily waste, and for paper waste. By using these, and not letting the waste accumulate, one major fire risk is eliminated.
On a similar note proper maintenance of all the equipment in use will help prevent fires. Rotating equipment abrading against something else can often cause sparks that land in waste, or even product or raw materials, and cause a fire. Proper maintenance would have made sure that the rotating equipment was operating in a clear area, not rubbing against anything. Similar malfunctions occur all the time with much industrial equipment. Fixing these, instead of taking a ‘let it go’ attitude will help prevent another common cause of fires.
Unfortunately, even if these practices are religiously followed, it is impossible to prevent all fires. Workers have to know what to do in case of a fire. Everyone working in the facility should know both how to evacuate when the alarm is given, and what fire safety equipment is available in their work area. At a bare minimum there should be a good number of fire extinguishers available to put out small fires, or to allow workers to beat back a large fire so they can evacuate. Larger facilities may be required to have installed fire hoses for the same purposes.
At least once a year make sure that all employees know how to evacuate in case of a fire. Also, during this training explain to them the proper response to a fire. The first step should always be to notify someone else about the fire, no matter what size the fire is. The second step is to evaluate what size fire it is: if it is a large fire, there is no reason for workers to expect to be able to put it out with fire extinguishers, and so they should evacuate. If necessary, use fire extinguishers to clear a path to the exit. In the case of a small fire the worker should try to put out the fire using whatever is available. If electrical equipment is involved, shut off power to that equipment. However, it is vital that the worker knows to keep an eye on his or her evacuation route, and know if that is ever threatened by the fire it is time to evacuate. Likewise, if the worker cannot keep the fire from growing while using a fire extinguisher, or if the charge in the fire extinguisher being used is running out, it is time to evacuate.
In larger workshops some people may be trained in firefighting to act as first responders in cases of small fires that aren’t out of control, but not quickly extinguished. If that is the case, all workers should know how to notify them of a fire, and that when these people get on the scene all other workers should evacuate (Unless told otherwise by the first responders.) Likewise, when the fire department shows up, they are in charge, do not argue with them.
Other concerns should be addressed during annual training: fires produce smoke, and smoke is a killer. More people succumb to smoke inhalation than burns in a fire. This is another vital point to get across to people who may not be sure of the difference between a small and a large fire. If they ever feel shortness of breath, or can’t see, it’s time to evacuate, regardless of the status of the fire. Electrical wiring insulation, and plastic pipes can often put out very toxic fumes when they burn. Regular inspections of all firefighting equipment should be performed as well. It is to be hoped that none of it is ever used, but it should be ready for instant use at any time.
Finally, the most useful fire prevention and safety tool is the worker’s brain. An alert and concerned worker can stop a dangerous situation before it becomes a fire.