Prevent accidental fires

Fires and explosions accounted for approximately 4% of workplace fatalities in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many things can cause fires, but interestingly, accidental fires are most likely to be caused by interaction with the environment.

By Douglas Parrish, PhD., CIH, CSP

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Fire prevention requires workers to not only know how to do their jobs safely, but to be thoroughly familiar with the work site. In water well drilling, a momentary brush against a power line could result in a burned vehicle, fatalities and even fire spreading to neighboring houses or nearby woods. Be careful where you drill — hitting buried electrical or service lines, propane supply or pipelines, or other water lines are all bad occurrences to be avoided and could also lead to fires and explosions. Check with your local or state utility companies. Where I live in Virginia, "MISS UTILITY" is a great resource.

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In addition, workers also need to know the neighborhood. This is not always an easy job for mobile drillers who do not work at a fixed facility. However, it is an essential part of the fire prevention portion of a company-specific health and safety plan to know where the nearest hospital is and who to call for emergency services.

Keep your house in order

Poor housekeeping is the No. 1 cause of worksite fires. A fire hazard can be created by workers simply not putting things away where they belong on the jobside either during the day or at the end of the day when storing away equipment and supplies.

An essential element of fire prevention is proper storage of hazardous materials. At a drilling site this may include gaseous or compressed liquid chlorine which acts as an oxidizer if exposed to the diesel fuel or gas used in the rigs and other vehicles on the site. Not just chemicals and flammable liquids are potential fire hazards. Cardboard and other packing materials are also flammable materials.

Good maintenance procedures are also important in fire prevention. For instance, where are oily rags kept on your job sites? Do all workers know that they should never be left in the sun? Do they know all ‘incompatible materials’ at the site? For instance, oil and hydraulic fluid-soaked rags should never be exposed to a heat source. Petroleum products, even traces on a worker’s clothes, are combustible if exposed to a spark from cutting, welding or grinding.

Employer responsibility

Employers should train workers about fire hazards in the workplace and about what to do in a fire emergency. If you want your workers to evacuate, you should train them on how to escape. If you expect your workers to use firefighting equipment, you should give them appropriate equipment and train them to use the equipment safely. Also, you are responsible for ensuring the employer-provided equipment is maintained. (See Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 1910 Subparts E and L; and Part 1926 Subparts C and F.)

Employers do not have to provide portable fire extinguishers but if they do, they must establish an educational program to familiarize workers with the general principles of fire extinguisher use and they must provide hands-on training in using this equipment. (For details, see OSHA 29 CFR Part 1910 Subpart L.)

A handy phrase is “trust but verify.” Employers are responsible for training their personnel and for then routinely checking maintenance and work practices to ensure that correct procedures are followed. Getting out of the office periodically is a good idea; you need to know if your workers are actually implementing all the required personal protective equipment practices, hazardous material use and disposal regulations, and fire safety and prevention instructions. Many other “best management practices” can be found on state and federal OSHA, EPA, and trade organization Web sites.

OSHA standards for fire prevention

OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to "furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees".

Fire safety is also addressed in specific standards which apply to the main drilling company office, satellite offices/garages, warehouses, and individual trucks and job sites. OSHA’s standards for General Industry (29 CFR 1910) pertaining to fire prevention cover:

  • Exit routes, emergency action plans and fire prevention plans
  • Occupational health and environmental controls including ventilation
  • Hazardous materials
  • Materials handling and storage
  • Fire protection
  • Welding, cutting and brazing
  • Toxic and hazardous substances

OSHA has interactive software called the Fire Safety Advisor that helps you understand and apply OSHA's Fire Safety related standards. It addresses OSHA's General Industry standards for fire safety and emergency evacuation and OSHA standards for firefighting, fire suppression and fire detection systems and equipment. The software will interview you about your building, work practices, and policies at the facility to determine whether and how OSHA's Fire Safety standards may apply.

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