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Causes of Fire in the Workplace

Top 5 Causes of Fire in the Workplace

In 2018 alone, emergency fire fighting teams responded to an estimated 103,600 fires on commercial properties. Fortunately, these fires in the workplace can be managed when proper safety measures are taken in advance.

Annual reports from government agencies and firefighting nonprofits provide public data showing the top causes of commercial fires. We’ll review the top five and outline the relevant steps you can take to protect your place of business from each one.

Commercial fire statistics

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA is a nonprofit dedicated to fire prevention education, designed to minimize property damage and loss of life from fires nationwide. They regularly release information and statistics on fires in the U.S., including residential fires, commercial fires, vehicle fires and outdoor/wildfires.

According to NFPA reports, firefighters responded to 120,000 non-residential structure fires in 2019, which made up 9% of all fires for that year. Non-residential structure fires encompass fires in buildings in any commercial industry, ranging from restaurants to office buildings to senior living and healthcare facilities.

From 2018 to 2019, instances of commercial structure fires rose 22% and injuries climbed 9%. Despite this jump, the good news is that we’ve come a long way in fire prevention as a nation. The number of non-residential structural fires in 2019 was 61% lower than in 1980.

When do commercial fires most often happen?

NFPA has released interesting statistics on the times when commercial fires are most likely to occur. As expected, fewer fires occur on weekends when employees are usually at home. Weekend fires are rare, but most likely to occur between noon and 2 p.m.

Interestingly enough, only about a third of fires occur between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., but these overnight fires were responsible for two-thirds of property damage.

The top causes of workplace fires

This list comes from NFPA data, as well as commercial data from the U.S. Fire Administration. Research from both organizations shows that the top causes of fire in the workplace are cooking fires, intentionally set fires, unintentional fires caused by human error or carelessness, electrical malfunctions and heating malfunctions.

There are some discrepancies in the number of fires attributed to each one. For example, the U.S. Fire Administration found that carelessness causes more fires than those intentionally set, where the NFPA found the opposite. While the order varies, the top causes remain the same across the board. 

Graph of top causes of workplace fire  

1 – Cooking fires 

Cooking fires are far and away the most common cause of fire damage in the U.S. With 31,700 cooking fires reported in 2018 alone, these incidents account for 1 in 4 non-residential fires, but make up just 6% of total property damage.

They aren’t limited to restaurants, either. Educational and healthcare facilities often have cafeterias or kitchens on site, as do many office buildings. Cooking equipment is responsible for: 

  • 65% of fires in healthcare facilities
  • 61% of fires in restaurants
  • 38% of fires in educational institutions
  • 29% of fires in office properties
  • 13% of fires in stores and mercantile properties

Preventing cooking fires in the workplace

The best way to prevent cooking fires in the workplace is to keep vigilance top of mind for employees. Provide fire safety training for any employees using kitchen equipment and put posters in kitchen areas with fire safety tips. Use these foundational tips to get you started: 

  • Never leave food unattended while it’s cooking.
  • Remember you have food cooking by setting a timer (Note: Be sure to provide this tool in your workplace kitchen!)
  • Keep anything flammable away from heat sources, including but not limited to paper towels and dishcloths.
  • Clean dishes, cooking equipment and appliances regularly to avoid grease build up.

It can also help to designate an employee to take charge of fire safety in the kitchen. This person can be in charge of communicating and enforcing the fire safety tips mentioned above, as well as checking at the end of the day that all appliances are turned off and the kitchen is cleaned. 

2 – Careless acts/human error

In general, office buildings are filled with flammable material and fire hazards, even outside of the kitchen. Papers pile up on wooden desks, five different space heaters get plugged into the same outlet and ventilation areas can be blocked by carelessly placed furniture, just to name a few commonly seen hazards. Even a casually tossed cigarette butt that lands in the wrong place outside can start a fire.

These hazards pile up even further in industrial and manufacturing facilities, or any facilities that use machinery and equipment. Built up dust can combust and overly greased machines can burn easily. Some machines can run on flammable fuel that accidentally spills or leaks onto the ground. Faulty equipment can be ignored or overlooked for long periods of time. Even regular, old-fashioned improper use of equipment can cause fires.

Preventing accidental fires in the workplace

The best way to combat this cause is through state-of-the-art fire training for employees that helps prevent fires in the first place and gives employees the power to stop them if they do break out. 

Regular cleaning schedules for both maintenance staff and employees can play a huge role in removing sneaky fire hazards. Setting aside time for employees to clean and organize their desks can mitigate fire risk. In more industrial facilities, schedule regular maintenance and cleaning for both your machines and facility.

Be sure, too, that there are plenty of easily accessible fire extinguishers around the workplace, and that employees are properly trained on how to use them. Because fire safety training isn’t “one and done,” you should also schedule regular follow up safety training sessions and conduct inspections and reviews to reduce fire risk for years to come.

3 – Intentional fires

The NFPA designates intentional fires as the third most common cause of fire in the workplace. The U.S. Fire Administration reports 10,200 intentionally set fires in 2018, or around 10% of total commercial fires.

Unfortunately, arson is not as rare as many employers would prefer to believe. Some businesses are targeted by strangers, others by people closer to the workplace. Intentional fires are most often set between 3 p.m. and midnight.

Preventing intentional fires in the workplace

The best way to prevent intentionally set fires in the workplace is through heightened security measures. A CCTV camera system with good lighting, even at night, can make a world of difference in deterring crime. Motion sensor lights can help in this department, too.

Be aware of the most common locations where fires are intentionally set in structures: bathrooms, trash cans, mail slots and parking garages. While you cannot place cameras in bathrooms and trash cans are easily moved, you can take care to install them in parking garages and pointed at your front door.

Your second method of prevention is an interior sprinkler system that is maintained and checked regularly. That way, if a fire does break out when no one is around, you can prevent extensive property damage across the building.

4 – Electrical fires

Many businesses that rely on electricity to keep things up and running. From powering overhead lights to office computers and other machinery, the risk of electrical failure or malfunction is seemingly all around. The U.S. Fire Administration reported 8,100 electrical fires in businesses last year.

Faulty or loose wiring, overloaded power strips and old, sparking electrical equipment are all common culprits for starting commercial electrical fires. Some facilities also experience electrical fires from high density discharge (HID) lights, which are usually found in warehouses. Warehouses that store combustible materials must be diligent, as HID lights have been known to blow, sending hot shards of glass sailing straight toward the combustible materials.

Preventing electrical fires in the workplace

It’s important to remember that all places of business are legally required to check for risk of electrical fires and ensure all equipment functions correctly and the facility is up to code. Conduct regular equipment inspections and fire safety checks on electrical equipment and fit wiring with breakers to prevent electrical overloads.

When hiring electrical contractors to work on your building, do your work in ensuring they are reliable and highly skilled to avoid improper wiring installation or shoddy work. Ask for references before hiring.

For HID lights specifically, investing in double-shrouded bulbs or lightbulb covers can prevent hot glass from getting anywhere near combustible materials. You can also look into upgrading to different warehouse lighting or even switching all facility lighting to LED lights to mitigate fire risk. 

5 – Heating fires

Last but certainly not least, heating equipment caused 7,100 commercial fires in 2018. This category is extensive, ranging from hot plates in the breakroom to space heaters, keeping individual cubicles warm and radiators, boilers and heating ducts that keep the whole building toasty.

The threat of heating fires increases in winter when heat sources are most often used. If not maintained properly throughout the year, heating systems can easily overheat and alight flammable items nearby.

Preventing heating equipment fires in the workplace

Preventing heating fires in the workplace is similar to preventing them at home. Inspect heating appliances and systems on a regular schedule. Year-round, but especially in winter, keep flammable items away from heating ducts and heat sources. Never block heat sources with furniture.

In your fire prevention training, remind employees to turn off space heaters and hot plates when they leave the room. If possible, offer timers for power strips that turn off the power source after regular shifts.

Prepare for fire damage with a disaster recovery partner

Another great way to stay prepared for fires in the workplace is by working with a disaster recovery partner. A restoration company can not only help restore your property if a fire does occur, but can work with you beforehand to identify and address areas of risk or concern.

Partnering with a restoration company can be the missing piece in jumpstarting critical workplace fire prevention and cleanup efforts that can get you back in business as quickly as possible. Statistically, after a disaster occurs, 40% of small businesses never reopen and another 25% fail within a year after reopening. A personalized disaster recovery plan made in advance can keep you in business and maximize your recovery process.

ServiceMaster DSI offers disaster recovery planning for fire prevention as well as soot and smoke removal for offices, educational institutions, government facilities, healthcare facilities, hospitality facilities, manufacturing plants, apartment communities, places of worship and retail spaces.

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