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August 29, 2005
Fire Extinguisher Use: Do All Employees Need to Know?

What is your company's fire-fighting policy? Fires are the most common type of emergency for most companies, and many fires start out small enough to be put out with a portable fire extinguisher. But that doesn't necessarily mean that all employees need to know how to use a fire extinguisher. OSHA says that companies have three basic choices for employees if a fire breaks out:

  1. All employees must immediately evacuate the building when they hear a fire alarm, or
  2. Certain designated and trained employees are authorized to fight fires with portable extinguishers, while all others are required to evacuate immediately, or
  3. All employees are authorized to fight fires with portable extinguishers.

Providing extinguishers means OSHA compliance responsibilities. Employers need to decide if they want to provide fire extinguishers for employees to use if necessary. The decision may not be easy: While it's obviously helpful if employees know how to put out small fires, it also exposes them to a higher level of danger than if they are simply required to evacuate. Moreover, employers that do want employees to fight small fires can't simply mount a few fire extinguishers and leave it at that. Instead, they must comply with the requirements of OSHA's standard on Portable Fire Extinguishers (29 CFR 1910.157), which include:

  • Minimum requirements for distribution of fire extinguishers throughout the workplace (for example, no more than 75 feet of travel distance to the nearest Class A extinguisher)
  • Why It Matters...
    • According to OSHA, workplace fires kill about 200 and injure about 5,000 persons each year.
    • In a typical recent year, there were more than 75,000 workplace fires that caused more than $2 billion worth of damage.
    • In FY 2004, OSHA issued more than 1,300 citations for violations of its standard on portable fire extinguishers.
  • Requirements for regular visual inspections, maintenance, and testing
  • Education and training for employees in how to use fire extinguishers

What kind of training is needed? OSHA's training requirements are not very specific, but they do call for a program that "familiarizes employees with the general principles of fire extinguisher use" as well as informs them of the hazards of fighting small fires. For companies that designate only certain (rather than all) employees for fire fighting, training should be more in-depth and encompass the use of various kinds of fire-fighting equipment that are appropriate for the workplace. For either type of training, employers must provide it both initially and at least once a year thereafter. (And don't forget to document the training!)

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