How much do you know about fire extinguishers?

Probably all of you know their are fire extinguishers in your offices and companies, and you might even know that someone comes by once a year to service them.  I’m betting you don’t know which OSHA regulations they fall under, and what additional requirements are included to make you FULLY compliant instead of being somewhat compliant.

For starters, there are different regulations for fire extinguishers based on the industry you are a part of.  There are specific fire extinguisher regulations for Tunneling, Mining, Ship building, Construction, and General Industry.  For this post, I will focus on General Industry, as I believe most of you reading this blog fall into that category.  I will focus on two sets of regulations, the Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR 1910.157) for portable fire extinguishers, and Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations, specifically General Industry Safety Orders 3221 (Fire Prevention Plan), 5543 (Fire Control), and 6151 (Portable Fire Extinguishers).

GISO 3221 requires employers with more than 10 employees to have their Fire Prevention Plan in writing.  It must include the “identification of potential fire hazards, potential ignition sources (such as smoking areas) and their control procedures, and the type of fire protection equipment or system which can control a fire involving them.”  In addition, the plan must include the names or job titles of those who will be responsible to maintain the systems installed for fire prevention, the names or job titles of those responsible for the accumulation of flammable or combustible waste materials, and what housekeeping methods will be used to prevent those materials and residues from contributing to a fire emergency.

GISO 5543 (Fire Control) requires “Suitable  fire control devices, such as small hose or portable fire extinguishers, to be available at locations where flammable or combustible liquids are stored.  At least one portable fire extinguisher (10-B units rating or more) must be located not more than 10 feet from the door opening of a room used to store flammable liquids, and not less than 10 feet or more than 25 feet from any class I or class II liquid storage area located outside of a storage room but inside a building.”

We all seem to know there are portable extinguishers hanging around in our workplaces, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen them blocked by something.  In Body Shops for instance, it’s really easy to place the hood of a car, or a huge tool box in front of the extinguisher hanging on the wall.  In addition to fire extinguisher regulations, there are others concerning “Access Egress” that talk about paths of escape and keeping clear paths to fire control equipment.  Your sprinkler system may not kick in until the fire is seriously out of control.  That extinguisher may be the only chance your employee has to get to safety.  They shouldn’t have to move things to get at a fire extinguisher.

GISO 6151 is specific to portable fire extinguishers in California.  Although there are some exemptions to this regulation, it establishes that “employers will provide approved portable fire extinguishers, and shall mount, locate and identify them so that they are readily accessible to employees without subjecting the employees to possible injuries.”  There are specific types of extinguishers that are not approved for use based on the agents inside, and employers are required to “assure that portable fire extinguishers are maintained in a fully charged and operable condition and kept in their designated places at all times except during use”.  The regulation also establishes the distances that employees should travel to get the extinguisher.  Class A fires (wood, paper etc.) is no more than 75 feet, Class B fires (flammable liquids) no more than 50 feet, and Class C fires (electrical) shall be added as part of the pattern in addition to the Class A and B extinguishers.

Most companies know to keep the bill or annual record that a professional maintenance company has inspected and certified that each portable fire extinguisher in the workplace is fully charged, and in good working condition.  This is a requirement of both California GISO 6151, and 29 CFR 1910.157.  What you may not know is that those two regulations also require the physical inspection, and documentation of that inspection, for each portable fire extinguisher in your workplace on a monthly basis.  There are tags placed by your servicing company right on each extinguisher.  It’s easy to look at the gauge, make sure the yellow needle is in the green, then write in the date, and initial the tag, but when it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s no one’s responsibility.  I’ve been in many workplaces where the tags weren’t dated and initialed.

The things I’ve written today are paraphrased or actual text from the laws.  If you aren’t doing the things above, you are vulnerable to fines and citations, and more important than that, you are potentially rendering your employees helpless in an emergency fire situation.  I’m hoping you are curious about what a 10-B unit rating is, and that you will go to Bing or Google to look it up.  I’m also hoping you are inspired to wander through your workplace making sure there is a clear path, you have the right kind of extinguishers in the right places, and that every tag is marked with monthly inspection dates and someone’s initials.  If your portable fire extinguisher is fully charged and in good working condition today, it has been that way since it was annually serviced.

Remember, Safety is NOT what we talk about, it’s what you actually DO.


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