fight or flee

Small Fires in the Workplace – Fight or Flee?

Should employers have employees fight or flee when it comes to small fires in the workplace?

When we work with employers in developing an emergency action plan for their workplace, we occasionally discover misunderstandings about the concept of fight or flee with regard to small fires in the workplace.  Other than a medical emergency, a fire is the most likely type of emergency for which the majority of businesses will face.  When dealing with fires in the workplace, employers must consider the balance between ensuring employee safety and reducing property loss. In developing a plan for fires in the workplace, a critical decision for the employer will be whether employees should fight a small fire with a portable fire extinguisher or should simply sound the alarm and evacuate the area.

Small or incipient stage fires are defined by OSHA as a fire which is in the initial or beginning stage and which can be controlled or extinguished by portable fire extinguishers, Class II standpipe, or small hose systems without the need for protective clothing or breathing apparatus.  For the most part, these fires can usually be extinguished quickly by a trained individual with the proper fire extinguishing device.   However, in order to do this safely and to keep a small issue with minimum cleanup from becoming a potentially catastrophic event, the employee must understand the limitations and proper use of a portable fire extinguisher as well as the hazards associated with fighting even an incipient-stage fire.  Hence the need for a discussion of Fight or Flee when it comes to extinguishing fires with a fire extinguisher.

What does OSHA say about Fight or Flee?

According to OSHA, choosing to simply evacuate the workplace rather than providing fire extinguishers for employee use will most effectively minimize the potential for fire-related injuries to employees. In addition, OSHA believes training employees to use fire extinguishers and maintaining those extinguishers requires considerable resources.  However, OSHA further states that other factors, such as the availability of a public fire department or the vulnerability of egress routes, should enter into the employer’s decision. The OSHA Evacuation Plans and Procedures eTool delineates four options:

  1. Total evacuation of employees from the workplace immediately when alarm sounds. No one is authorized to use available portable fire extinguishers.
  2. Designated employees are authorized to use portable fire extinguishers to fight fires. All other employees must evacuate workplace immediately when alarm sounds.
  3. All employees are authorized to use portable fire extinguishers to fight fires.
  4. Extinguishers are provided but not intended for employee use.

Total Evacuation

The option of total evacuation of the workplace with no one being authorized to use fire extinguishers seems to fly in the face of the OSHA regulation that the “employer shall provide portable fire extinguishers . . . so that they are readily accessible to employees . . .” If OSHA is recommending total evacuation, one could question whether extinguishers should be required in the workplace at all. Before choosing the Total Evacuation option, we recommend employers discuss this with their property insurance carrier and local fire authority, as they may view this issue differently. While this option is simple and removes the need for annual fire extinguisher training, it transfers the responsibility of extinguishing a fire solely to an external fire suppression provider.  What was a simple smoldering fire when discovered could become a fully involved structure fire by the time the fire department arrives.

Designating Certain Employees to Use a Fire Extinguisher

With this option, the employer must provide portable fire extinguishers and designate certain employees (such as supervisors) as the only employees authorized to use them to fight fires.  All other employees are required to evacuate the affected area immediately upon the sounding of a fire alarm. This option implicitly requires the employer to establish an emergency action plan which satisfies the requirements of [1910.38] and complies with the requirements in 1910.157(c), (e), (f), (g)(3) and (g)(4) regarding general requirements for fire extinguishers as well as inspection, maintenance and testing, hydrostatic testing, training.  However, the employer does not have to meet the requirements of 1910.157 (d) involving the placement and distribution of the fire extinguishers.  Once again, employers need to discuss this with their property insurance carrier and local fire authority before removing fire extinguishers from various locations.

All Employees are Authorized to Use Portable Fire Extinguishers to Fight Fires

When selecting this option, employer must establish an emergency action plan and train employees accordingly.  They must meet all general fire extinguisher requirements and train all employees on the use of fire extinguishers on an annual basis.  Fire extinguishers in the workplace must be selected, distributed, inspected, tested, and maintained in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.157.  This will create a greater challenge of assuring all employees are initially trained and retrained annually on the use of fire extinguishers.

Extinguishers are Provided but Not Intended for Employee Use

The employer must establish an Emergency Action Plan and a Fire Prevention Plan and must train employees to those plans. OSHA states that if fire extinguishers are left in the workplace, they must be inspected, tested, and maintained in accordance with 29 CFR (e) and (f). It will be imperative that employers demonstrate their employees have been instructed that, although fire extinguishers are available, they are not intended for use by employees.  The employer’s only expectation of the employee is to notify other occupants and safely evacuate the building in the event of a fire.

Conclusion on Fight or Flee Options

Designating employee participation in firefighting activities (beyond evacuation) elevates the complexity level of an Evacuation Plan as well as the level of training which must be provided to employees. However, preplanning and effective training could mean the safe extinguishment of a small, contained fire before it does real damage to a structure that may lead to loss of life and/or massive property damage.