Prevent accidental fires

Jan. 9, 2009
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.
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.

Fire prevention plans

Fire safety becomes everyone's job at a worksite. Employers should train workers about fire and mishap prevention in the workplace and what to do in a fire emergency. This plan should outline the assignments of key personnel in the event of a fire and provide an evacuation plan for workers on the site, it must be in writing, be kept in the workplace and be made available to employees for review. However, an employer with 10 or fewer employees may communicate the plan orally to employees.

At a minimum, a fire prevention plan must include:

  • A list of all major fire hazards, proper handling and storage procedures for hazardous materials, potential ignition sources and their control, and the type of fire protection equipment necessary to control each major hazard;
  • Procedures to control accumulations of flammable and combustible waste materials (this also is related to the Hazard Communications Standard for hazardous materials [hazmat], which has specific requirements for the handling, storage, labeling, and disposal of hazmat);
  • Procedures for regular maintenance of safeguards installed on heat-producing equipment to prevent the accidental ignition of combustible materials;
  • The name or job title of employees responsible for maintaining equipment to prevent or control sources of ignition or fires; and
  • The name or job title of employees responsible for the control of fuel source hazards.
  • Training and information: An employer must inform employees upon initial assignment to a job of the fire hazards to which they are exposed. An employer must also review with each employee those parts of the fire prevention plan necessary for self-protection.

Anticipating health and safety issues and taking action to prevent them is a long-term and profitable investment for companies. For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association Web site at

Doug Parrish is a Certified Industrial Hygienist, a Certified Safety Professional, and a member of the Safety and the Gas & Vapor Detection Committees of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

The OSHA Small Business Handbook offers this checklist of questions to help ensure that company operations are protected from most fire risks:
  • Is your local fire department familiar with your facility, its location and specific hazards?
  • If you have a fire alarm system, is it certified as required and tested annually?
  • If you have interior standpipes and valves, are they inspected regularly?
  • If you have interior standpipes and valves, are they inspected regularly?
  • If you have outside private fire hydrants, are they flushed at least once a year and on a routine preventive maintenance schedule?
  • Are fire doors and shutters in good operating condition?
  • Are fire doors and shutters unobstructed and protected against obstructions, including their counterweights?
  • Are fire door and shutter fusible links in place?
  • Are automatic sprinkler system water control valves, air and water pressure checked periodically as required?
  • Is the maintenance of automatic sprinkler systems assigned to responsible persons or to a sprinkler contractor?
  • Are sprinkler heads protected by metal guards if exposed to potential physical damage?
  • Is proper clearance maintained below sprinkler heads?
  • Are portable fire extinguishers provided in adequate number and type and mounted in readily accessible locations?
  • Are fire extinguishers recharged regularly with this noted on the inspection tag?
  • Are employees periodically instructed in the use of fire extinguishers and fire protection procedures?

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