What Are The Requirements For Fire Extinguishers In Businesses

November 5, 2018 Roy Williams

OSHA rule 29 CFR 1910 establishes the requirements for portable fire extinguishers in a business. Employers are generally required by the OSHA rule to provide employees with portable fire extinguishing equipment for use in fighting incipient stage fires in the workplace. An “incipient-stage fire” means initial or beginning stage that can be controlled or extinguished by portable fire extinguishers. The rule, however, provides alternatives for employers who do not want their employees to fight incipient stage fires in the workplace. Regardless of whether or not a business chooses to rely upon or allow its employees to use portable fire extinguishers to fight incipient stage fires; fire extinguisher inspection, maintenance, and testing requirements are applicable for all fire extinguishers.

Options for Compliance

Each employer must choose among the following options for compliance with the OSHA rule for the use of portable fire extinguishers to fight incipient stage fires.

Option 1—There are no fire extinguishers, and the employer sounds a fire alarm and evacuates all employees from the danger area to safety when a fire occurs. Employers who select this option are relieved from compliance with the fire extinguisher rule unless a specific standard in the rule requires that portable fire extinguishers be provided. If the employer selects this total evacuation option, a written Emergency Action Plan and a written Fire Prevention Plan are required.

Option 2—The employer keeps portable fire extinguishers in the workplace but does not want employees fighting fires and therefore evacuates all employees in the fire danger area to safety. OSHA recognizes that portable fire extinguishers may be required in the workplace by other organizations such as insurance companies and local fire departments even when employees are not trained to use them. Portable fire extinguishers that are not intended for employee use may still pose a hazard if they are not properly maintained. Employers who select this option must comply with the maintenance, inspection, and testing requirements of the fire extinguisher rule. A written Emergency Action Plan and Fire Prevention Plan are required for this option.

Option 3—The employer evacuates all employees from the danger area except those designated to use portable fire extinguishers. Employers who select this option need not comply with the distribution requirements of the fire extinguisher rule. This option allows the employer to distribute extinguishers in a manner such that they are available to the employees designated to fight incipient stage fires. The facility’s Emergency Action Plan should include the list of employees designated to use portable fire extinguishers.

Option 4—Any employee may use a fire extinguisher to fight an incipient fire; evacuation may not be required during the control of an incipient stage fire. Employers who provide portable fire extinguishers for use by any employee to use in fighting incipient stage fires must comply with the fire extinguisher rule in its entirety.

Portable fire extinguishers are required by the Code to be installed in the occupancies specified by the rule.  The Code requires portable fire extinguishers in buildings of every occupancy classification other than one- and two-family dwellings, whereas NFPA 101 requires portable fire extinguishers in far fewer occupancies. The different requirements of NFPA 1 and NFPA 101 are sometimes, incorrectly, perceived as a conflict, but they are not. The scope of NFPA 1 includes occupant safety, emergency responder safety, and property protection; the scope of NFPA 101 is limited to occupant life safety. The broader scope of NFPA 1 warrants different protection requirements — in this case, more stringent requirements than those of NFPA 101 for the installation of portable fire extinguishers. By meeting the more stringent requirements for portable fire extinguishers of NFPA 1, the requirements of NFPA 101 are also met. A conflict would exist only if one code required portable fire extinguishers and another code prohibited them.

Employees who provide portable fire extinguishers for employee use must provide an educational program to familiarize all employees with the general principles of fire extinguisher use. Employees who are expected to use portable fire extinguishers must be provided with “hands on” training in the use of the fire extinguishing equipment.

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