By Sue McCraven
Editor’s Note: Canadian provinces each have their own Occupational Safety and Health regulations, and precasters in Canada should adhere to their respective laws. However, they generally mirror U.S. OSHA’s regulations, so OSHA regulations are cited here as general guidance for all precasters.
Do you fight a fire in the shop, or do you head for the nearest exit? Can you use a combination A-B-C fire extinguisher on an electrical fire? What are common fire-safety deficiencies at precast plants? What specific advice do precast safety experts offer? This Safety Toolbox is a brief overview of fire safety procedures that will help you answer questions before you’re in an emergency situation. For complete information on a plant Emergency Action Plan, visit U.S. OSHA’s website.1
Fight or flight?
In general, fire extinguishers should be used only by trained personnel to fight small fires (wastebasket) in the plant or on the grounds. If a fire is large (> 60 sq ft), is over the firefighter’s height, is very smoky or hot (too hot to approach within the 10-to-15-ft range of the extinguisher), or if the fire involves flammable solvents, OSHA recommends evacuation. So, unless an employee is well trained in the use of a fire extinguisher (at least once-per-year training) and understands the different types of fires (electrical, wood and paper, liquid fuels), or if there is any doubt about the safety of fighting a fire, the safest option would be to evacuate the building.
“We encourage precast plant managers and owners to contact their local fire department in developing and practicing their Emergency Action Plan for fire safety,” said Lt. Denny Hughes of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department. Hughes also reminds precasters that all employees need to know where the emergency power shut-off is located and how to operate it in an emergency situation.
Photo Courtesy Farmington Hills Fire Department
Some fire safety issues at precast plants
“Some of the key things to look out for are blocked or locked exits and egress routes,” says Don Royer, area safety manager with Oldcastle Precast-New England, Rehoboth, Mass. The clear floor space at emergency exits can be a tempting spot to store plant materials or equipment when an employee is in a hurry. And while it might seem common sense to use a steel cable to secure a banging exit door with a broken latch, the plant’s regulations for emergency egress must always take precedence.
“I know of one plant fire that occurred at night, so fortunately no one was hurt,” says Chris Matson, vice president of Dura-Kast Products in Springfield, Mo. “That incident was caused by an electrical fire, and even though that fire started in an engine compartment, it is important that all plant staff know where the emergency electrical cut-off switch is and how to use it.” Matson adds that they do not store any materials, flammable or otherwise, in the room that houses the main electrical distribution system.
“Many precast plants have open work areas that are exposed to weather conditions like rain and snow,” says Alberto Oceguera, safety manager for Jensen Precast in Arizona. “In order to prevent electrical shocks, electrical shorts or fires, plant safety managers must be aware of hazardous conditions related to weather.” Water or snow accumulation surrounding welding or electrical equipment can present a serious potential for electrical shorts and subsequent fires. All electrical tools, welding equipment and extension cords must be in excellent working condition with no exposed wires, well insulated and with good grounding. “Remember, water is the natural element with the highest electrical conductivity and, therefore, employees must take extra precautions when working with electricity in humid or wet areas,” he says.
Make friends with the local fire department
Taking advantage of the services offered by the local fire department or fire marshal is also good advice for any precast concrete business. “In our jurisdiction, the local fire marshal makes a biannual inspection of fire safety conditions in the plant,” says Matson. “If there is any emergency-plan deficiency, the fire marshal provides written notice and usually allows 30 days for corrective action.” The fire department will also check if there are adequate numbers of extinguishers in the facility and adequate, unobstructed egress at exit doors, he says.
“In commercial or industrial settings, safe egress is always an issue,” says Lt. Denny Hughes at the Farmington Hills Fire Department, Mich. “In manufacturing plants, door access, open aisles and unobstructed paths of emergency egress should be marked or taped on the floor so they remain clear of all obstructions in case of a fire.”
Hughes encourages businesses to contact their local responders for fire safety rules and building codes that apply to their jurisdiction and structure type. “Production plants also need to have an emergency response team within their work force to lead employees in times of emergency situations,” he says.
Here is a quiz on fire safety in the workplace that can be used during your regularly scheduled safety briefing or staff meeting. All are true/false statements and the answers are below.
1. A spark from welding or grinding operations in a precast plant can ignite oil-based release agents used on forms.
2. Welding, cutting and grinding operations that run on electrical power and take place in the open can become potentially dangerous when inclement weather causes the floor or ground surface to become wet.
3. Four elements are needed at the same time for a fire to start. These elements are: fuel; light; a bare electrical cord; and the chemical reaction that is fire.
4. Fire extinguishers and emergency backup power and lighting need to be inspected once per year.
5. The A, B or C designation on fire extinguishers stands for extinguisher type: A = Air-pressurized water (APW) for ordinary combustibles (wood, paper, cloth, rubber); B = Carbon dioxide (CO2)
for fires in oil, gasoline, grease, solvents or flammable liquids; and C = Dry Chemical for
fires in electrical equipment (fuse boxes, computers, wiring).
6. When in doubt you can always use water to put out a gas or electrical fire.
7. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends that all employees in workshops or manufacturing areas have access to a properly working fire extinguisher within a 50-ft travel distance (29 CFR 1910.157(d)(4)).
8. All employees should know where the main electrical shutoff switch is located and how to turn it off in a fire emergency.
9. Newer plants with heat-sensor sprinkling systems must have both the fire suppression system and the fire alarm inspected by a professional agency at least once per year.
10. The most important reason for inviting the local fire crew in to tour your precast plant for fire preplan purposes is that firefighters can learn the layout of the plant (including points of access, utility shut-off location, water supply locations and fire department connections) in case of fire.
Sue McCraven, NPCA technical consultant and Precast Solutions magazine editor, is a civil and environmental engineer.
2. True. Extra precaution should be taken by workers when operating power equipment (arc welding, cutting, grinding) outdoors. Make sure all electrical cords are properly insulated and grounded and that an operable and properly designated fire extinguisher is nearby.
3. False. OSHA lists the four elements necessary for a fire as: fuel or combustible material; oxygen sufficient for combustion; a heat source (enough to raise a material to its ignition temperature); and the chemical reaction that is fire.
4. False. Plant fire extinguishers and battery powered backup systems (for alarms and emergency lighting) need to be checked for proper charge once per month in many jurisdictions.
6. False. Never use water to extinguish flammable liquid or electrical fires. Water can spread a flammable liquid fire and can lead to electrocution in an electrical fire.
9. False. Plant fire suppression systems in some jurisdictions must be checked by a professional agency on a quarterly basis. Check with your local fire department or fire marshal for the local building code and regulations that apply in your location.
10. True. Mark Epps, Fire Marshal, Springfield (Mo.) Fire Department, says “If a fire were to occur in your plant, fire crews would already know the plant layout and how to gain access to the affected area, allowing for a quicker extinguishment of the fire and a reduction in the amount of damage.”
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