Fire presents significant risks and dangers in any workplace, threatening equipment, stock and structures. At its worst, fire can put companies out of business and kill people. The origin of many modern fire safety workplace protocols can be traced back to March 25, 1911, when 146 employees lost their lives in the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. That fire became the benchmark for what employers should NOT do in their facilities if they want to protect their employees and property.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is now a classic case study for Fire Service Administrators. It led to the first legally mandated fire protection protocols for American business owners. The protocols required all interior doors to open out, no exterior doors being locked during working hours, sprinkler systems installed where more than 25 employees worked, and regular fire drills so that employees were trained in how to successfully leave the building in case of emergency.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
The Federal government backs their belief that workers have a right to a safe workplace with stringent laws that require employers and business owners to provide and maintain working conditions free of known dangers and fire hazards. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (with Amendments through January 1, 2004) is the Federal law under which the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces national workplace health and safety laws, including fire regulations.
When OSHA conducts workplace inspections, it expects employers have complied with providing proper exits, emergency plans, firefighting equipment, and the proper employee training to prevent injuries and deaths in their workplace. Large businesses and corporations or industrial plants must have a designated safety officer to oversee the emergency plans and training. They are also responsible for checking and maintaining safety and firefighting equipment. There are stiff fines for not fulfilling OSHA requirements, not to mention the real threat of litigation should a fire occur due to an employer’s failure to fulfill his/her responsibilities under the law.
OSHA Requirements Mandate Workplace Decisions
When a business is building a facility, the plans must incorporate all required fire safety devices, including the correct number, size and structure of fire exits. Even the smallest building must have at least two means of escape. These doors must never be blocked and remain unlocked during hours when employees are present. Fire suppression systems are required. Approved fire extinguishers must be tested and inspected regularly. Automatic sprinkler systems that are properly installed and maintained greatly enhance workplace fire safety, as they are the most reliable firefighting systems. Where necessary for certain materials, total flood suppression fire suppression devices should be installed. Proper warning signs and pre-discharge alarms must also be installed to warn employees of the impending dangers of their discharge if they are ever activated.
For businesses of certain sizes and natures, OSHA requires the presence onsite of a Safety Officer. The company either must hire someone for this position or designate an existing employee to fill this role. OSHA also requires that each employer and workplace develop a specific Fire Prevention Plan. The goal of this plan is to prevent unwanted fires from ever occurring. It should include ways to educate employees in the best way to prevent fires, to recognize potential fire hazards and correct them, in the proper way to handle and store flammable materials, and to respond appropriately in case of a fire.
Employers also need to write a detailed emergency action plan for employee evacuation in the event of a fire. The plan should specify the routes to use in evacuation of the building, procedures to follow, and methods for accounting for employees after the evacuation. It should provide accommodations for aiding the physically challenged to evacuate successfully. Copies of both plans should be available to all employees. The employer must also support the work of the Safety Officer with company policies and fiscal allocations to keep fire safety equipment in good working order.
It is also crucial that employees be educated about how to analyze fires in order to be able to correctly identify the severity of a fire incident. A small fire that can be effectively and safely doused with a fire extinguisher can save considerable damage and loss of property and even life. Company policy should explain when to fight a fire and when to evacuate.
The Roles of Fire Safety Professionals
The Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFPS) Board was formed in 1971. Its purpose was to document the competency of individuals participating in fire safety, fire protection and fire prevention; and to offer them professional recognition. The FFPA partnered with the CFPS Board and today many thousands of professionals are Board certified through this internationally recognized and highly regarded program. The recognized professional fields of fire safety professionals certified through this program include:
- Fire Officers
- Fire Marshals
- Fire Inspectors
- Safety Managers
- Fire Protection Consultants
- Risk Managers
- Code Enforcers
- Loss Control Specialists
- Loss Prevention Specialists
- Building Code Officials
The International Board of Certification of Safety Managers (BCHCM) is an independent non-profit credentialing body founded in 1976 to designation certification and renewal requirements for Certified Healthcare Safety (Emergency) Professionals-Fire Safety Management, known as CHSP-FSM and CCHEP-FSM. These professionals have in-depth knowledge of fire protection and suppression plans and understand the different types of fire protection that different facilities may have. The National Fire Protection Association provides information on fire prevention and protection. It also has a set of standards and will send a copy of these to anyone who requests them.
The role of the fire safety professional is at its most important on the front lines of firefighting. When a fire fighter advances to the company officer, he or she becomes responsible for determining the plan for attacking the fire and deploying company personnel effectively and safely to suppress it successfully. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NISOH), inexperienced and unprepared officers can botch the job and get their people hurt or killed. This is due to improperly doing the initial “size-up” up assessment of fire behavior at the scene (risk versus gain). It is also due to a lack of solid knowledge of fire behaviors.
Effective company officers know the difference between fighting fires in durable structures and in modern lightweight construction. They are firmly grounded in their knowledge of fire behaviors. They are able to anticipate changes and potential problems in time to get their personnel to safety. They are also able to serve as expert witnesses when called upon to testify in cases of arson and other legal actions arising after fires they were in charge of suppressing.
Local, state and federal officials take fire safety, prevention and suppression very seriously, enacting and enforcing the necessary laws to protect the public welfare. In the workplace, employers and employees should treat every alarm as the real thing and act accordingly, until it is found to be either a false alarm or an actual fire. An ounce of prevention is always the safest course when it comes to fire safety.
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