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Fire Safety

Fire Safety: Lessons from NYC’s Deadliest Industrial Accident

On March 25, 1911, workers were filing out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City when someone noticed a small fire in a scrap materials bin. The fire quickly spread out of control, and the factory’s employees frantically sought escape routes. Nearly 150 of them did not make it out alive.

Some employees were consumed by smoke or fire. Others leaped to their deaths from the building’s upper floors.

One hundred years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire holds its dubious position as New York City’s deadliest industrial accident.

We have learned a lot about fire awareness and prevention since 1911. The Shirtwaist Factory incident is the rallying cry of fire safety efforts, spurring stricter fire, safety and building codes worldwide. Still, we have a long way to go.

The U.S. Fire Administration notes that there were nearly 1 million fires reported in the United States in 2007. Almost 10,000 people were injured. Another 1,900 lost their lives.

Furthermore, of 25 industrialized nations examined by the World Fire Statistics Center, the United States has the fifth highest death rate resulting from fires.

Employers can help reverse the trend by following a few tips. Every workplace is unique, but all fire safety programs should have at least one thing in common: simplicity.

Plan multiple evacuation routes

Intense heat and the sheer weight of people trying to escape caused the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s only evacuation route to collapse, trapping workers inside. The lesson: Plan multiple evacuation routes for every conceivable emergency situation.

Remember that a fire will probably call for a different evacuation procedure than a tornado or a power outage.

Post signs showing approved evacuation routes in all common areas and at exit points, should an alternate exit be needed.

Install working smoke detectors

The operative word is working. The National Fire Protection Agency estimates that nearly 900 lives could be saved annually if all homes had working smoke alarms. Regularly test the alarms in your workplace and your home. Monthly or quarterly testing is best, but do it at least twice a year.

Provide the right equipment

You probably buy gloves, safety goggles and other personal protective equipment for your employees (If you don’t, you should). Don’t forget about fire extinguishers. Fire extinguishers should be clearly marked and easy to get to.

If you want to take your fire safety plan a step further, consider installing a fixed fire suppression system, such as the fire sprinklers you see in most public buildings.

Every month, make sure all fire extinguishers and fire systems are in their designated places, fully charged and ready to use. Once a year, have a certified professional test them.

Restrict where smokers light up

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If you’re going to let employees smoke, make sure they only do it in designated areas.

Smoking areas should be a safe distance from combustible materials, such as wooden pallets or cardboard boxes, as well as flammable liquids, including solvents, degreasers and paints. Don’t forget to provide a container where employees can dispose of cigarettes.

Display signage

During an emergency, people don’t have time to search for fire extinguishers, emergency exits or evacuation routes. Clearly mark them so they are easy to locate. Consider making them reflective or lighted, but make sure you use an uninterruptible power source.

Practice, practice, practice

Keep your emergency plan simple, or it will likely become a shelf document that never gets used. Then, practice the plan regularly to ensure everyone understands their responsibilities.

Don’t get complacent

All it takes is a carelessly discarded cigarette, improperly stored cleaning material or an electrical device left on to start a fire that wreaks havoc on your workplace.

Keep your cool

Your employees will take their cues from you. If you panic, they will likely panic. You can instill confidence by: 1. Assigning strong authority figures to take charge during emergencies. 2. Making sure everyone understands exactly what they are expected to do. 3. Practicing your plan regularly.

Stay flexible

Every emergency is different. Your plan might be flawless, but be prepared to alter it on the spot if necessary.

The U.S. Fire Administration notes that there were nearly 1 million fires reported in the United States in 2007.