In 1939, the first issue of Marvel Comics introduced the original Human Torch, an android named Jim Hammond who would burst into flames when exposed to oxygen. Fourteen years before that, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first National Fire Prevention Week to commemorate the Chicago fire of 1871 which killed over 300 people 54 years earlier. In that entire span of 68 years, from 1871 to 1939, over 17,000 people died in fires in the United States. Because of fire awareness campaigns over the years, the number of home and work place deaths have greatly decreased, and the risk of fire in your lab goes down when fire safety awareness increases as well.
In the laboratory, fire safety begins with a look at the physical environment. It is important to make sure the department is set up to prevent a fire from starting and to keep one from spreading if a fire ignites. The electrical wiring in the lab plays a large part in fire safety. Frayed cords are the number one cause of laboratory fires, and daisy-chained extension cords or multi-plug adaptors are fire hazards as well. Damaged outlets can also present danger. Because equipment may move often in the environment, it is a good idea to check for safety in the lab electrical set up regularly. In audits I have performed this year alone, I have discovered three damaged electrical cords just waiting to cause a fire. Things change rapidly in the lab physical environment, so looking for these potential safety issues is vital.
The next aspect of the lab physical layout that needs attention is flammable chemical storage. There are complicated regulations about that, and multiple classes of flammable liquids, but you can simplify storage rules to make it easy to understand. In general, there should be no more than one gallon of a flammable liquid out in the lab per every 100 square feet. If there are automatic sprinklers in the department, that amount can go up to two gallons. If safety cans are used, the amount can be doubled again. Any excess volume of flammable liquids should be stored inside of a flammable safety cabinet with self-closing doors. Remember, the point of these storage limits is so that if a fire occurs, there is not a large amount of flammable material in one location. That slows the spread of the fire and allows automatic fire extinguishing systems to be able to perform their job effectively.
Fire-fighting equipment should be available as well, and staff are required to have training to use that equipment if it is available in the department. The best training includes a regular hands-on return demonstration and periodic fire drills. Making sure staff can use fire extinguishers and know how to respond to a fire situation may be the one of the most important safety training policies you can implement. Fire blankets are typically not required per local fire code, but if they are in place, be sure staff is aware of how to use them should the need arise.
The last actions in a departmental fire situation include evacuating and preventing the spread of the fire. To that end, it is important to keep aisles clear and wide for safe travel, and all exit routes and stairwells should be checked to make sure no obstructions exist. Staff should be aware of their primary and secondary evacuation routes, and all exits should be adequately marked. Make sure employees know to close fire and smoke doors during a fire situation.
Even in modern times there are structure fires in the work place, and unfortunately, laboratories are not excluded from that list. The Human Torch could catch fire and not get burned, but we all know that is science fiction, and burns from a fire are no joke. The best practice is to be prepared for a fire-provide training, conduct physical environment rounds, and run drills often. That will protect your staff and make you a true safety super hero.
–Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.