The When and Where of Fire Extinguishers

When Do you Need Fire Extinguishers?

Fire extinguishers are used in the workplace to control small fires or to facilitate escape when a fire is blocking an escape route. Unless the employer has established and implemented a written fire safety policy which requires the immediate and total evacuation of employees from the workplace in the event of a fire and includes an emergency action plan which meets the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.38 and a fire prevention plan which meets the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.39, extinguishers must be provided in the workplace. Also, regardless of whether an employer has the required emergency action and fire prevention plans, fire extinguishers must be provided if a specific OSHA regulation requires they be provided (as is the case in certain circumstances when welding is being performed).


Where Do you Need Fire Extinguishers?

When determining where to place fire extinguishers, you need to decide which type of fire might occur in a specific area and the degree of hazard. The OSHA requirements for fire extinguisher distribution are as follow:

· Extinguishers for Class A fires should be placed such that employees need to travel no more than 75 feet to reach the fire extinguisher.

· Extinguishers for Class B fires should be placed such that employees need to go no more than 50 feet to reach the fire extinguisher.

· Class C fire extinguishers should be distributed based on the appropriate Class A or Class B hazards. Class C fires are actually a Class A or Class B fire involving energized electrical equipment where the fire extinguishing media needs to be nonconductive. Therefore, if the fire hazard is more closely associated with a Class A type of fire, the distribution pattern for Class A extinguishers should be used, and if the fire hazard is more closely associated with a Class B type of fire, the distribution pattern for B extinguishers should be applied.

· Class D fire extinguishers should be distributed such that the employee travel distance from the combustible metal working area to any extinguisher is 75 feet or less. (Per OSHA regulation, Class D fire extinguishers are required in areas where combustible metal powders, flakes, shavings, or similarly sized materials are generated at least once every two weeks.)

When determining the spacing of fire extinguishers in your workplace, remember that these are guidelines only. After reviewing the hazards in your workplace, you may decide that spacing the extinguishers more closely than the OSHA requirements is warranted. Also, when using multiple-class extinguishers (ABC extinguishers, for example), you will distribute extinguishers based on the hazard type-so, if an ABC extinguisher is meant for use with Class B fire hazards, you will distribute them such that the travel distance is no less than 50 feet, as opposed to using the 75-foot guideline for Class A.


Inspection, Maintenance, and Testing

If you choose to supply fire extinguishers in the workplace, you are required to institute a program to inspect, maintain, and test them. The OSHA requirements for inspection, maintenance, and testing of fire extinguishers include:

  • All portable fire extinguishers in the workplace must be inspected, maintained, and tested.
  • The extinguishers should be visually inspected a least once each month. This inspection should include ensuring that there is clear access to the extinguisher so that an employee can easily reach it in the event of a fire and that the extinguisher is still in place, hasn't been damaged, and appears to be in working order (if the extinguisher has a gauge, it shows as full and that the safety pin is still in place-indicating that the fire extinguisher has not been used). Fire extinguishers that are damaged or missing should be replaced immediately.
  • Perform an annual maintenance check on portable extinguishers. An internal examination of stored pressure extinguishers is not required. The date of the maintenance check should be recorded, and the record of the test should be retained for one year after the last entry or the life of the shell, whichever is less. Also, you are required to empty and maintain dry chemical extinguishers (that require a 12-year hydrostatic test) every six years. (Dry chemical extinguishers that have nonrefillable, disposable containers are exempt from this requirement.) Note that when recharging or hydrostatic testing is performed, the six-year requirement begins from that date.
  • Provide a replacement extinguisher when portable fire extinguishers are removed from service for maintenance and recharging. The replacement should be of the same (or equivalent) type (for example, an ABC extinguisher can be used as a replacement for a Class C fire extinguisher, but one that is rated for Class A fires only cannot).