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Workplace Fire Safety



OSHA requirements for workplace fire safety include exits, emergency escape routes, fire extinguishers, and emergency plans.
In September 1991, 25 people died as a result of a fire in the Imperial Food Products, Inc., plant in Hamlet, North Carolina.

The cause of the fire was the ignition of hydraulic oil from a ruptured line only a few feet from a natural-gas-fired cooker. The cooker was used to cook chicken pieces for distribution to restaurants.

Out of 90 employees on the shift, 25 died and an additional 54 were injured.

Many OSHA violations were uncovered after the fire. The basic OSHA exit and fire safety violations that contributed to the deaths and injuries were: [View slides]
  • Locked doors,
  • No marking of exits or non-exits,
  • Excessive travel distances to exits,
  • No fire alarms,
  • Obstructed doors,
  • No emergency action plan or fire prevention plan, and
  • No automatic fire suppression plan.
The tragic Hamlet fire received a lot of publicity. In spite of this publicity, blocked exits continue to be found in poultry processing facilities. OSHA cited a plant in Hudson, Missouri, for blocking fire and emergency exits in July 1997.
OSHA standards require:
  • Proper fire exits and training of employees to prevent fire deaths and injuries in the workplace.
  • If employers want employees to fight small fires, appropriate fire extinguishers must be available and employees must be trained to use them.
  • If employees are to evacuate instead of fighting small fires, an employer must have a written emergency plan and train employees for evacuation. During a 1997 survey, OSHA found that many facilities had written emergency plans. However, workers had not received adequate training or drills in what to do in an emergency.
The basic OSHA requirements for fire exits are:
  • There must be at least 2 doors or other means of escape for fire emergencies; they may not be close to each other.
  • Fire doors must not be locked or blocked from the inside when employees are in the building.
  • Routes to the fire exits must be free of obstructions and properly marked with exit signs.
If an employer wants employees to fight small fires, the proper types of fire extinguishers must be available. Extinguishers must be:
  • Approved for the types of fire hazards in the plant,
  • Maintained, and
  • Inspected.
Employees who will use fire extinguishers must be trained:
  • About the hazards of fighting fire,
  • How to operate the fire extinguishers, and
  • How to alert other employees to the fire emergency.
If employees are to evacuate instead of fighting small fires, an employer must have a written emergency plan.

Emergency action plans:
  • Designate evacuation routes and procedures to account for all evacuated employees;
  • Assign responsibilities for procedures to shut down critical operations and perform rescue and medical duties;
  • Establish a way to alert employees to the fire emergency; this may be voice communication, bells, whistles, or horns; and
  • Identify persons who can provide more information.
Employees must be trained so they know the evacuation signal and what to do in an emergency.
A fire prevention plan will minimize the number of times an evacuation is needed.
Provisions of a fire prevention plan include:
  • Housekeeping procedures for storage and clean-up of flammable materials and flammable waste;
  • Procedures for controlling ignition sources such as smoking, welding, and burning;
  • Procedures for maintenance and cleaning of heat-producing equipment, such as burners, ovens, stoves, and fryers; and
  • Training of employees in the potential fire hazards and the control procedures in the fire prevention plan.
Automatic fire suppression systems such as automatic sprinkler systems improve fire safety in the workplace.
Automatic systems:
  • Detect the fire,
  • Sound an alarm, and
  • Put water or other suppression agent where heat and fire are located.
Automatic systems must be properly maintained.

If a system is taken out of service during work hours a fire watch must be substituted.

Special requirements exist for automatic systems that use chemicals that present a serious health hazard.

The use of automatic systems must be covered by the emergency action plan and fire prevention plan.
Specific OSHA Requirements

OSHA Requirements for workplace fire safety are contained in 29 CFR 1910 Subparts E and L.
1910 Subpart E, Exit routes, emergency action plans, and fire prevention plans. Contains the following sections: [Overheads]
  • Definitions;
  • General requirements;
  • Means of egress, general; and
  • Employee emergency plans and fire prevention plan.
1910 Subpart L, Fire protection. Contains the following sections: [Overheads]
  • Scope, application and definitions applicable to this subpart;
  • Fire brigades;
  • Portable fire extinguishers;
  • Standpipe and hose systems;
  • Automatic sprinkler systems;
  • Fixed extinguishing systems, general;
  • Fixed extinguishing systems, dry chemical;
  • Fixed extinguishing systems, gaseous agent;
  • Fixed extinguishing systems, water spray and foam;
  • Fire detection systems; and
  • Employee alarm systems.
NOTE: Employers in states with state-run safety and health plans should check with their state agency. Their state may enforce standards that, while "as effective as federal standards," may not be identical to the federal requirements.


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