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A fire safety primer for your facility


January 1, 2019

Every year, it bears repeating: Fires happen, and you can prevent that.

Yet they keep happening. According to NFPA statistics, from 2011 to 2015, United States fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 5,750 structure fires in healthcare properties each year. These fires caused annual averages of two civilian deaths, 157 civilian injuries, and $50.4 billion in direct property damage. Fires in nursing homes accounted for a disproportionately higher share of civilian injuries, but a smaller share of direct property damage, relative to other healthcare facilities.

On the home front, the NFPA says that people who have a reported fire in their home are more likely to die today than they were a few decades ago. This startling statistic helped shape this year’s NFPA Fire Prevention Week theme: “Look. Listen. Learn. Be aware—fire can happen anywhere.”

While Fire Prevention Week took place in October, it’s never too late to improve your fire prevention game. Healthcare clinics, as the first place that patients turn to for help and advice, should always be in the business of not only caring for their patients, but also educating them and making the facility as safe as possible from fire hazards. Here’s a primer on some of the top tips you can follow:

Get training. Take this opportunity to review your evacuation plans with your staff, as well as fire safety tips that you can find from resources such as OSHA and the NFPA. Consider the following questions:

  • Where would your staff meet outside should the building be evacuated?
  • Do staff know how to use a fire extinguisher?

On the subject of that last question, you’d be surprised how few people have never picked up a fire extinguisher, let alone operated one. Call your local fire department and have some firefighters come down and give your employees an education session (and keep a signed log of who showed up for OSHA records). Some departments will even let staff practice taking shots at a real fire and using an extinguisher to put it out.

Fire extinguisher training. You could also do your own regular fire extinguisher training. Some facilities offer this training as they need to empty out their refillable extinguishers anyway (typically CO2 extinguishers).

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 staff 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.

Train every month. OSHA has dedicated pages on its website to certain issues that give safety professionals trouble, and all the resources are free—including lots of training and advocacy posters to put up around your clinic. For example, in the last couple of years, the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) has become such an important topic that OSHA created a webpage just for GHS and hazard communication issues. And yes, this is a fire safety issue, as you’ll need to know how to keep flammable liquids safe in your facility as well as how to provide first aid in the event of exposure.

This information can be used to create a short quiz (remember your training records!) that allows your employees to browse OSHA’s website for the answers. You can even create a separate workstation in the break room with a computer designed for the training—that way no one can claim there was no computer to use at home.

“Since so many staff work such varied shifts, it is hard to reach everyone with actual one-on-one training,” says Linda Gylland, MLS (ASCP) QLS, a lab safety officer for Sanford Health in Fargo, North Dakota. “Everyone does annual mandatory online education, and some assignments are based on job role. It is the responsibility of each department supervisor and each individual to make sure that all safety requirements are met. We cover basic safety issues which require searching online policies and SDS for the answers. This enables staff to read updated policies and have fun at the same time.”

Be a holiday Scrooge. This month, go over decoration safety tips for the upcoming holidays, because you know you’ll have someone in the lab who just needs to have those doily snowflakes or a Christmas tree at his or her station. From now on, that’s a no-no, as paper decorations hanging from the walls are a fire hazard.

Hold monthly fire drills. Drill your staff to make sure they know how to react to a real fire. Have you performed fire drills this year? Healthcare facility and laboratory fires are more common than you may think. Be aware, be ready, and ensure your staff remains safe if a fire situation occurs in your workplace. Walk your evacuation routes at least annually, if not monthly.

Beware of batteries. In recent years, the FDA has issued warnings to healthcare professionals and administrators of the potential safety risks associated with battery-powered mobile medical carts following reports of explosions, fires, or equipment smoking or overheating. Such incidents have required hospital evacuations, according to the FDA, and the carts are seeing more use in clinics as the use of laptops and other battery-powered equipment becomes more common. Battery-powered medical carts include crash carts, medication dispensing carts, and carts that carry and power medical devices, barcode scanners, and patient monitoring tools, according to FDA reports. These carts usually have high-capacity lithium or lead-acid batteries that are capable of powering medical devices and computers for hours.

The FDA recommended several steps for maintaining battery-powered carts, or other battery-powered equipment in general, including the following:

  • Inspect batteries for signs of damage, including bulging, swelling, or cracks.
  • Notify the manufacturer of damaged batteries.
  • Inspect battery chargers and carts containing chargers for overheating components.
  • Vacuum to remove dust and lint around battery chargers and carts containing chargers.
  • Do not use batteries that do not charge properly. Ensure that batteries are replaced at the manufacturer-recommended replacement intervals.
  • Conduct a survey of battery charger locations and verify that all chargers are located in easily visible, fire-retardant locations away from patient care areas and open sources of oxygen.
  • Do not install chargers or charging carts in confined spaces.
  • Keep flammable and explosive objects away from battery chargers and charging carts.
  • Request preventive maintenance documentation from the cart manufacturer.

Ban smoking. Seriously, are you still allowing smoking in your clinic? Most clinics and hospitals don’t allow it in patient treatment areas at all, both as a fire safety precaution and a health precaution. In many cases, smoking by employees on breaks is also prohibited.

Practice safe sanitizing. The fire danger of hand sanitizer takes a lot of people off guard. The high alcohol content in hand sanitizer makes it a great disinfectant, but also a major fire hazard, which is why there are strict fire codes that require a collection cup under dispensers and prevent their installation above electrical outlets. Still, fires from hand sanitizer are rare, but they do happen. Make sure your employees are keeping it away from fire sources and letting their hands dry completely before performing tasks that may expose sanitizer to heat sources.

Organize a fire safety scavenger hunt. When is the last time you did a major inspection for fire hazards in your facility? You can bet OSHA inspectors will do so if they visit.

You can make it into a fun training session for your employees, as well as an educational one. Have your employees fan out and check out the workplace. 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. Some other possible scavenger hunt items include the following:

  • List the location(s) of the fire extinguisher(s) in your department.
  • What is the safety officer’s middle name?
  • Where is the oxygen shutoff in your department (if any)? Who shuts it off in an emergency?
  • Locate the evacuation route in your department. Where is your exit?
  • How long do you have to complete an incident report? (Hint: The policy is in the admin policy book.)
  • Where is the command center set up during a disaster? (Hint: The emergency management plan has this info.

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