Your employees are busy working when one worker notices smoke billowing out from behind some machinery. As he gets closer, he sees flames. He grabs the nearest fire extinguisher and starts to spray. Within minutes, the fire is under control and the employee is a hero.
Sound too good to be true? It could be. For instance, what if your worker didn't know how to use the extinguisher? What if the extinguisher didn't work? Or, what if he used the wrong extinguisher and the flames increased?
These problems could occur if training on the use of fire extinguishers was not provided. Placing a few fire extinguishers in some strategic locations and expecting your employees to know how to use them just won’t do the trick.
Who should be trained?
Fighting a fire is a risky business. Do you want your employees involved in something the fire department really should handle? That is an assessment employers need to make. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration only requires you to train employees in fire extinguisher use if you want them to fight fires. If you clearly specify in your emergency action plan, and communicate to your employees, that they should always evacuate in case of fire, then you need not train any of your workers on how to fight fires. At the other extreme, facilities with fire brigades need to provide extensive training.
Most employers take a middle-of-the-road approach, expecting workers to use extinguishers to fight small, contained fires (such as in a wastebasket), but requiring them to evacuate if the fire is large or out of control. Having well-trained workers who are ready to extinguish small fires, rather than waiting for the fire department to show up, can keep potential damage and costs to a minimum.
The ABCs of fire extinguishers
The first step in training your employees to control fires is to teach them about the different kinds of fire extinguishers and what they are used for. Using the wrong extinguisher can actually cause a fire to spread faster. The four basic types of extinguishers and their uses are:
Class A: This type of extinguisher is used for fires that involve wood, paper, trash, rags or cloth. It controls the fire by wetting down and cooling the flames.
Class B: These extinguishers put out fires that involve gases or flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil, paint, solvents and grease, by cutting off oxygen or reducing flame.
Class C: This type of extinguisher is used on electrical equipment and wiring. Instead of using water, which conducts electricity and poses a dangerous electrocution hazard, this extinguisher contains carbon dioxide or a dry chemical. WARNING: Never use water on an electrical fire.
Class D: This type of extinguisher is used for combustible metal fires, such as aluminum, sodium, magnesium or zinc.
Combination ABC or BC: These extinguishers are used for fires that involve combinations of the A, B and C classes above.
Knowing where to place extinguishers throughout your facility is an important consideration.
Extinguishers should be conspicuously located and readily accessible for immediate use in the event of a fire. They should be located along normal paths of travel and egress. An extinguisher located near an exit can provide an escape route that will not be blocked by fire.
Keep in mind that:
n If an extinguisher is not visible, arrows should be posted on the wall pointing the way to the extinguisher.
n Install extinguishers on hangers, brackets, in cabinets or on shelves.
n Check that operating instructions on the extinguishers face outward.
n Travel distance for Class A and D extinguishers should not exceed 75 feet and Class B should not exceed 50 feet. There is no maximum for Class C extinguishers.
n Classification markings must be clearly visible.
n Never block access to fire extinguishers.
n Check your local governmental ordinances for additional requirements for fire extinguishers.
“It didn’t work.” You never want to hear those three words during a fire. If you follow a regular inspection and maintenance program for your fire extinguishers, you may never have to. OSHA requires you to inspect all extinguishers at least once a year to verify that they are charged up and in good shape. Mark the inspection tag with the date to document your inspection. Other hints include:
n Store fire extinguishers right side up.
n Avoid combining dry chemicals from different manufacturers.
n Watch out for tampering or seals that have been punctured on cartridge-type chemical extinguishers.
n Periodically disconnect and inspect hoses to be sure that there are no obstructions.
Facing a fire
The final step in preparing to address a fire emergency is to train your employees on how to use a fire extinguisher. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) advises people to remember the word “PASS.” The letters of this word stand for the steps to take when using a fire extinguisher:
1) Pull the pin on the unit (some types require you to Press a lever)
2) Aim at the base of the fire, standing about 8 feet away.
3) Squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent.
4) Sweep from side to side until the fire is out.
NFPA also warns that you should never turn your back on a fire, even if it looks like it is out. It could flash up again, so you might need to continue spraying.
Don’t be a hero
Even if your employees are well-trained on using fire extinguishers, you still need to explain that when a fire is too large for them to handle on their own they need to evacuate. If they can't seem to control a fire, or if it is just too big, they shouldn’t try to be heroes. They should get out of the building immediately and call the fire brigade or fire department.
Hands-on training works best with fire prevention and extinguisher use. Take the training group on a tour of your facility and point out the different types of fire extinguishers. Look for potential fire hazards along the way, such as greasy rags, frayed wiring or blocked exits. Practice using the extinguishers outside, or ask the local fire department to give a talk and a live demonstration.
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