Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: A Brief History on Fire Safety Regulation

| OSHA, USF Safety Florida

Demonstration of Protest and Mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911.

The origins of fire protection engineering can be traced back to Ancient Rome. After a devastating fire that destroyed nearly half the city, the Emperor Nero directed that the city be rebuilt utilizing passive fire protection methods, such as space separation and non-combustible building materials. In the early 1900’s several deadly fires in New York City’s garment industry ignited public outrage over the conditions to which workers were subjected. One fire in particular motivated the city and state to act.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City occurred on March 25, 1911, and was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the city of New York. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, from smoke inhalation, or died as a result of falling or jumping to their deaths. The staggering loss of life happened because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, this was a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks. Many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the building to the streets below. In the aftermath, the New York State Legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission to “investigate factory conditions in this and other cities and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazards or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases”. The State Commission’s reports helped modernize the state’s labor laws, and mandated better building access and egress, fireproofing requirements, the availability of fire extinguishers, and the installation of alarm systems and automatic sprinklers.

Today, nearly every business has portable fire extinguishers in the workplace. State and local building codes usually prescribe the number and type of fire extinguishers that each building or occupancy must have. These codes also require building owners or those who occupy the establishment to maintain the fire extinguishers in good working order.

It should be noted that OSHA does not in all cases, require employers to provide portable fire extinguishers for employee use. 29 CFR 1910 (General Industry Regulations) does however, specify certain instances when employers must provide portable fire extinguishers (or in some cases, alternate fire hose systems) for employee use.

Portable fire extinguishers are but one tool to prevent deaths and injuries from fires, but they are generally considered to be one of the essential tools used to stop a small incipient stage fire from becoming a tragic loss of life and property. For fire extinguishers to be effective in the workplace, employers must maintain their fire extinguishers and they must insure that employees are adequately trained to correctly use fire extinguishers and other fire protection systems when installed.

OSHA provides some specific exemptions to the 29 CFR 1910.157 portable fire extinguisher regulations in certain situations:

  1. In businesses where the employer has established and implemented a written fire safety policy which requires the immediate and total evacuation of employees from the workplace upon the sounding of a fire alarm signal and which includes an emergency action plan and a fire prevention plan which meet the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.38 and 29 CFR 1910.39 respectively, and when extinguishers are not available in the workplace, the employer is exempt from all requirements of 29 CFR 1910.157 unless a specific standard in 29 CFR 1910 requires that a portable fire extinguisher be provided.
  2. In businesses where the employer has an emergency action plan meeting the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.38 which designates certain employees to be the only employees authorized to use the available portable fire extinguishers, and which requires all other employees in the fire area to immediately evacuate the affected work area upon the sounding of the fire alarm, the employer is exempt from the fire extinguisher distribution requirements of 29 CFR 1910.157.

The vast majority of employers want their employees to use fire extinguishers when and where feasible and for those employers, OSHA has established regulations for the maintenance, inspection, and use of fire extinguishers. For specific details on the standard refer to . Under the OSH of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. This consists of enforcing standards, providing training, offering education and administering assistance. USF SafetyFlorida can help! We offer free and confidential services. Visit us at usfsafetyflorida.com to click together an emergency action plan or call toll free 1.866.273.1105 to schedule a consultation. For more information regarding fires safety in the workplace, click here.