burning building

A fire can consume a building in a matter of seconds, leading to property damage, physical injury, and even death. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that fires and explosions account for approximately 200 employee deaths and 5,000 workplace injuries each year. In addition, fires in the workplace cost business owners $2.3 billion annually. Therefore, small business owners must take proactive steps to prevent workplace fires and to minimize the impact a fire could have on their staff and their business.

1. Sprinkler Systems.

A sprinkler system installed in a building represents the best defense against fire damage. In fact, research suggests that properly working sprinkler systems are 99% effective in preventing fire damage and destruction. Although they are becoming more common in residential and commercial buildings, they aren’t available everywhere, particularly in old buildings where installing a sprinkler system would be prohibitively expensive.

2. Smoke Detectors.

Installing smoke detectors in the office is imperative. These devices are designed to detect smoke particles in the air. When an unusually large amount of smoke particles appears in the air, a smoke detector emits a loud noise to warn the building’s occupants. There are several options when shopping for smoke detectors. Some are battery powered, while others are hard-wired to the building’s electrical system and may be connected to a security company that will automatically dispatch emergency assistance when a fire occurs. Business owners should consider several factors when purchasing and maintaining their building’s smoke detectors:

  • Ensure that each smoke detector is loud enough to adequately warn employees that there is a problem.
  • Space out an ample number of smoke detectors throughout the workplace to prevent certain spaces from becoming vulnerable.
  • If you’re using battery-powered devices, set your calendar to remind you to routinely replace the batteries.

3. Fire Extinguishers.

To satisfy OSHA requirements, employers must:

  • Provide, mount, and locate approved portable fire extinguishers in the workplace.
  • Avoid using fire extinguishers that use carbon tetrachloride or chlorobromomethane.
  • Maintain fire extinguishers and routinely ensure that they are in proper working order.

4. Fire Safety Training.

The importance of educating your employees on fire safety cannot be overstated. If you’re like most employers, making any sort of employee training interesting can be a challenge. Using these tips will help bring life to an otherwise mundane topic:

  • Infuse humor into your presentations when appropriate.
  • Incorporate hands-on activities and demonstrations as often as possible to engage the audience.
  • Thoughtfully schedule fire safety programs to avoid imposing on employees’ personal time.
  • Customize your company’s fire safety training to suit the unique characteristics of your business and the needs of your staff. For example, employees working in a warehouse with dangerous combustible materials will need very regular refresher courses because of the inherent risks associated with their jobs.

Emergency exit light5. Evacuation Plan.

Every workplace needs a solid evacuation plan to advise employees on how to react to a fire. These escape plans should be in writing and should include, at a minimum, provisions like these:

  • Everyone should try to remain calm. When employees panic during a fire, chaos may ensue, thereby negatively affecting people’s judgment and slowing reaction time.
  • Employees should first attend to disabled or handicapped staff members that need assistance.
  • People should not concern themselves with any personal possessions or work materials; instead, the sole goal should be to get out of the building safely.
  • Employees should exit via stairways and avoid using elevators in the event of a fire.
  • If smoke is consuming the building and visibility is an issue, once employees find an exit, they should make loud noises to help others find the way out.
  • Only after individuals get out of the building should they dial 911. While still in a building consumed by fire, the only concern should be getting oneself and others safely out of the building.
  • All staff members should be advised to meet in a designated meeting place outside the building. There, management will take attendance so they can identify any missing people for emergency personnel on the scene.

6. Fire Drills.

Conducting periodic, unannounced fire drills will help ensure that employees understand and can properly execute the company’s evacuation plan.

7. Monitor the Electrical System.

Overloaded outlets, faulty wiring and defective plugs are some of the most common causes of workplace fires. Appliances used in offices, such as space heaters, electrical fans and coffee makers, are also common culprits. Therefore, small business owners should routinely conduct electrical inspections to detect and remedy any unsafe conditions.

These tips will help small business owners protect their businesses and their employees from the harmful effects of workplace fires. In addition, employers can take steps to minimize the damage if a fire does occur, such as backing up information stored on computers and maintaining important documents offsite or in a fire-safe cabinet.


Jay Harris is a Home Depot sales associate in the Chicago suburbs and a writer on Home Depot’s blog. Jay’s interests in the home and office improvement arena include smoke detectors and security systems.

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