Understand How Portable Fire Extinguishers Are Applied With Respect to OSHA’s Emergency Action & Fire Prevention Plans

Employers are generally required by 29 CFR 1910 to provide portable fire extinguishing equipment for use in fighting incipient stage fires in the workplace. 29 CFR 1910.157, however, provides alternatives for employers who do not want some or all of their employees to fight incipient-stage fires in the workplace. Employers who opt for the evacuation of all or most employees to a safe area do not have to comply with certain requirements of 1910.157, depending on the option chosen. These options are:

  1. The employer evacuates all employees to safety when a fire occurs [1910.157(b)(1)]: Employers who select this option are relieved from compliance with 1910.157 unless a specific standard in part 1910 requires that portable fire extinguishers be provided. If the employer selects this option, compliance with 1910.38 and 1910.39 is required through 1910.157(b)(1).
  2. The employer evacuates all employees except those designated to use portable fire extinguishers [1910.157(b)(2)]: Employers who select this option need not comply with the distribution requirements of 1910.157(d). This option allows for the employer to distribute extinguishers in a manner such that they are available to the employees designated to fight incipient stage fires. If the employer selects this option, compliance with 1910.38 is required through 1910.157(b)(2).
  3. The employer keeps portable fire extinguishers in the workplace but does not want employees fighting fires and therefore evacuates the employees to safety [1910.157(a)]: OSHA recognizes that portable fire extinguishers may be required in the workplace by other organizations (e.g., insurance companies, local fire departments, etc.). Portable fire extinguishers that are not intended for employee use may still pose a hazard if they are not properly maintained. Where this option is selected and the employer meets 1910.38 and 1910.39, then only the maintenance, inspection, and testing requirements in paragraphs (e) and (f) of 1910.157 apply.

Employers who do not select any of these options but instead provide portable fire extinguishers for use by any employee to use in fighting incipient stage fires must comply with 1910.157 in its entirety. Employees who provide portable fire extinguishers for employee use must provide an educational program to familiarize all employees with the general principles of fire extinguisher use [1910.157(g)(1) and (g)(2)]. Employees who are expected to use portable fire extinguishers must be provided with “hands-on” training in the use of fire extinguishing equipment [1910.157(g)(3)]. If the employer chooses to comply with all of 1910.157, there is no requirement under 1910.157 to comply with 1910.38 or 1910.39.

What does OSHA mean by a monthly "visual" inspection of fire extinguishers?  

While OSHA's Portable Fire Extinguisher regulation, 1910.157(e)(2), does not explain exactly what "visual inspection" should consist of, a June 27, 1997, letter of interpretation (which has since been removed) offered some guidance.

In that interpretation, OSHA said that the intent of the monthly inspection is to provide assurance that the extinguisher will operate effectively and safely. In addition to being in its designated place (readily accessible and immediately available), and being pressurized, the extinguisher can be observed for other possible defects, such as corrosion, mechanical damage, the presence of welding, soldering, brazing, or possible tampering.

OSHA says we are to use the following checklist as a guide to monthly visual inspections.

  1. Is each extinguisher in its designated place, clearly visible, and not blocked by equipment, coats, or other objects that could interfere with access during an emergency?
  2. Is the nameplate with operating instructions legible and facing outward?
  3. Is the pressure gauge showing that the extinguisher is fully charged (the needle should be in the green zone)?
  4. Is the pin and tamper seal intact?
  5. Is the extinguisher in good condition and showing no signs of physical damage, corrosion, or leakage?
  6. Have all dry powder extinguishers been gently rocked top to bottom to make sure the powder is not packing?


Header photo by Dynamic Wang on Unsplash

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