LET IT BURN
Steven Cesare, Ph.D.
A business owner from Virginia called me the other day to talk about his company’s safety program. In general, his company’s safety program was solid, effective, and employee oriented. Always nice to see! As our conversation migrated from safety metrics through OSHA paperwork to successful employee safety behaviors (e.g., weekly tailgate sessions, PPE, rewards and recognition), he eventually commented that his company had experienced three equipment fires during the past year.
Fires at work are never a good thing. Especially three, in the same year.
By professional instinct, I reflexively asked the owner if an investigation accompanied each fiery incident and if so, did any patterns become evident. Pleasantly surprised, the owner did in fact conduct safety investigations for each event, though no elucidating insight was found. Three different size lawn mowers, three different work crews, three different employees, each piece of equipment was supported by documented preventive maintenance records. Despite the lack of causal trends, it was nice to know the safety program was procedurally correct.
With no clear answers on hand, the business owner then began to rattle off several proactive ideas brainstormed by his company safety team (e.g., Department Managers, Safety Coordinator, Foremen, Mechanic) to prevent potential reoccurrence. One such proposed action item was to include a fire extinguisher in every company vehicle “just in case.”
Fire extinguishers are an interesting topic. Intuitively, at first glance, their access sounds great. However, upon closer review, adoption is not as clear cut as one would hope. Having spoken with quite a few workers’ compensation and safety professionals over the years, many of them routinely advise against using fire extinguishers on job sites. The issue of fire necessitates indefatigable vigilance, in that if something, anything, is not done precisely correct, there may not be a second chance to do it right.
Cautious by nature and reinforced by function, safety consultants are quick to list innumerable justifications for not using fire extinguishers on a job site; all of which are underscored by their undeniable orientation to minimize employee harm as well as any scintilla of legal liability. For example, making sure the right type of fire extinguisher is selected for the proper type of fire (e.g., vegetation or debris, piece of equipment, vehicle); verifying the fire extinguisher is stored properly in the vehicle; conducting and documenting annual formal fire extinguisher training by an accredited source (i.e., Fire Department, safety consultant, fire extinguisher vendor) delivered to appropriate staff to put out the fire correctly and safely, while not getting burned in doing so; maintaining administrative accountability to check the charge status of each fire extinguisher to validate its impromptu readiness; balancing the likelihood of actually being able to re-use a piece of equipment after it has been on fire, against the cost of simply filing an insurance claim for a replacement, without endangering any employee from possible danger; and lastly, simply relying on any employee to use a cell phone to dial 911 as a connection to the local fire department. With rare exception, most vendors will suggest against relying on staff to salvage a burning piece of equipment with a fire extinguisher and simply, “let it burn.”
As the business owner and I continued our conversation, I ardently suggested that his Safety Coordinator contact the workers’ compensation vendor to review any and all state-specific and federally-mandated OSHA requirements regarding fire extinguishers in a vehicle (e.g., size of vehicle, fuel tank capacity, proximity to flammable sources), and make a professional recommendation accordingly.
Like most discretionary decisions, it’s up to the owner and his/her management team to choose how they want to proceed on a given issue. Every company is different. Assuming documented legality, I reflexively trust their judgment, and wholeheartedly support their actions going forward.
That said, when it comes to fire, it is critical to know all the relevant laws, have proper resources on hand, implement detailed response procedures, establish a formal safety committee, train all staff repeatedly, rely on sage business partners, and ensure it is noteworthy topic within the company safety culture.
Do you know why? When it comes to fire, there may not be a second chance to do it right.
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