Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, is a laboratory safety officer for Sentara Healthcare, a multihospital system in the Tidewater region of Virginia and otherwise known as “Dan, the Lab Safety Man.”
Every year I love to use autumn as the time to discuss fire safety. After all, many other organizations promote fire safety ever since October was designated as National Fire Prevention Month in 1922. This year, as always, I do want lab safety professionals to be “fired up” about safety, but there have been some questions about regulations in this area that need special discussion.
The College of American Pathologists (CAP) is the accrediting agency for many labs in the United States, and they have specific regulations about fire safety on their General Checklist.
One regulation states: “If the fire safety plan includes laboratory staff use of fire extinguishers, personnel are instructed in the use of portable fire extinguishers.”
If fire extinguishers are present in your laboratory, their purpose is to be used by the staff in the department, whether or not the safety plan includes staff using them or not. OSHA has something to say about this as well:
“If fire extinguishers are available for employee use, it is the employer’s responsibility to educate employees on the principles and practices of using a fire extinguisher and the hazards associated with fighting small or developing fires.”
The CAP checklist strongly recommends that staff have hands-on fire extinguisher operation that includes the actual use of the device (or a simulator). They do not indicate how often this training should occur. Many labs I have inspected only provide the training once, but OSHA states that it must be provided upon hire and annually thereafter. That makes sense, and lab staff should be ever-ready and able to extinguish a small fire should that become necessary.
Some facilities offer fire extinguisher training as they need to empty out their refillable extinguishers (typically CO2 extinguishers). However, if that does not happen where you are, you have other options. One is to contact your local fire authority. They may happily provide fire extinguisher training for your staff. Another option is to provide the training yourself. You may be able to obtain a test extinguisher or you may simply have to use a full extinguisher without actually discharging it. The important thing is to go through all of the steps of PASS (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep) and to let the staff actually handle the fire extinguisher.
If you are providing the training, make sure you give some information about fires that people may not know. Describe the different classes of fires (A, B, and C) and the types of fire extinguishers used to fight them. Remind them not to use more than one extinguisher at a time so they do not blow a small fire onto another person. Tell them to always keep themselves between the fire and the exit. If the fire gets too big or out of control, make sure they leave the firefighting to the professionals.
Inspect your lab for fire risks. Are electrical cords frayed? This is a major cause of fires in the laboratory. Are items stored too close to the ceiling? This may block the action of your sprinkler system. Are ceiling tiles missing or out of place? This disrupts an important fire and smoke barrier. Who performs these inspections? You can, or your local fire authority can as well.
Autumn is a great time to raise fire safety awareness in your laboratory, but this is something that must be done all year. Drill your staff, make sure they know how to react to a real fire. Train them in the use of fire-fighting equipment. Walk your evacuation routes annually. Your staff truly cannot be too prepared.
Have you performed fire drills this year? Have your staff had hands-on fire extinguisher training? If not, it’s a great time to perform these tasks. Many people in history have lost their lives to fires, and laboratory fires are more common than you may think. Be aware, be ready, and ensure your staff remains safe if a fire situation does occur in your workplace.