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What Does the Law Say About Fire Alarms at Work?

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 7/10/2011

The law on fire alarms in the workplace is a compilation of the code and standards of OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) and the ADA (American with Disabilities Act). How do you successfully mesh all of their requirements in your business?

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    Threats and Damages from Fires

    “Wheelock AS horn/strobe” by Ben Schumin/Wikimedia Commons via GNU Free Documentation License Many business owners worry about restaurant fires. Even if your company does not feature an eatery, there is a good chance that the office building -- or strip mall in which the store front is located -- will have one or more restaurants on site. Available 2002 data from the U.S. Fire Administration highlight that only 7,100 restaurant fires nevertheless resulted in property losses totaling approximately $116 million.

    Even when restaurant fires do not present a fire danger for a company, the number of nonresidential blazes is nevertheless worrisome. In 2006, nonresidential building fires presented company owners with an estimated price tag of $2.3 billion. When compared to 2004 figures, this trend shows a three percent uptick. About 98,900 business fires were reported in 2006, which is actually a three percent decline when compared to 2004 numbers.

    The lesson is clear: Although the number of fires is on the downturn, the damage done becomes more extensive. Not surprisingly, the agencies governing workplace safety recognize fire danger as a very real concern and require companies to protect their workers from harm -- injury or death -- while on the business’ premises.

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    Risk Factors

    The office equipment on the premises is just one risk factor. While some fire risks can be mitigated, also consider that there are fire hazards over which the business owner has little control:

    • Public access. Buildings usually offer public access for clients and customers to visit offices. This also opens the door to the possibility of arson or unsafe smoking habits of the public.
    • Electrical failures. Older buildings may contain unknown code violations or at least outdated electrical wiring. While old architecture offers charms to the setting, it also presents with hidden fire dangers.
    • Contract labor. Cleaning crews, handymen and construction workers may bring in equipment that is an accident waiting to happen.

    Statistics, combined with risk factors, underscore the need to not only know the law of workplace fire alarms but also comply with it.

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    Types of Alarms

    OSHA specifies that alarms are audible as well as visual. The latter is a nod to ADA requirements that seek to protect hearing-impaired workers. Relying on the NFPA’s national code, an audible alarm must feature a sound that is unique, so that it could not possibly be mistaken for an appliance or drowned out by workplace noise.

    To comply with updated rules, horns and sirens -- for new systems -- are no longer considered sufficient. OSHA highlights that “only temporal signals or voice signals” satisfy the audible fire alarm requirement. Visual alarms must feature strobe lights. Place the alarms in areas frequented by workers, such as offices, break rooms, hallways, appliance rooms and other work areas. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the alarm manufacturer’s rating. For example, some visual alarms are only rated for 50 feet, which requires the company to add a second alarm to an area that measures 80 to 100 feet.

    If the alarm was installed after January 1981, it must be supervised. No matter how old or new the fire alarm system is, signaling components must be readily visible to all. Do not place them in odd locations or allow them to become obstructed with file storage boxes or office plants. Alarms must be mounted six inches down from the ceiling but at least 80 inches up from the ground.

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    Beyond the Alarm

    The business owner -- or human resources manager -- must realize that the installation of an up-to-date alarm system is only the first step in compliance. What to do once an alarm sounds is part two of the laws governing these alerts. OSHA defines the need for an emergency action plan that spells out how workers should react when the alarms sound is crucial.

    Rules are a bit laxer for companies with less than 10 employees, although even in a small setting there must be some type of formal plan in place. For example, if you are moving a business, it is a good idea to make the draft of an updated evacuation plan a part of the business moving checklist.

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    The law on fire alarms in the workplace is not fool-proof. Building designs and interior space usage demand that human resources professionals are vigilant and go beyond the scope of basic legal requirements to maintain a safe work environment for vendors, employees and clients alike.