fire extinguisher safety

Fire Extinguisher Safety: How Effective is Your Program?

Many organizations take fire extinguisher safety for granted. Extinguishers are installed throughout the facility and (hopefully) receive their required monthly and annual checks. But thankfully, most of these fire extinguishers will never be discharged.

Like spill kits, first aid kits, and AEDs, fire extinguishers are reactive response tools. They’re available for emergency purposes, but the hope is that they’ll never actually be used. However, safety is defined by the “what ifs”, and it’s important to recognize that the employer assumes responsibility for providing clear training and guidance on how and when extinguishers should be used.

This may sound straightforward, but after providing numerous OSHA HazCom and fire extinguisher safety trainings, I have come to two conclusions:

  1. First-time users often overestimate their ability to effectively extinguish a fire.

Most employees who have received OSHA HazCom training are able to recite P.A.S.S. (Pull Pin, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep). However, when asked to put out a live-fire in front of them, first-time extinguisher users tend to hesitate and lack confidence. This often results in the fire not being successfully extinguished with a single extinguisher or it taking longer than would be safe to do so in most circumstances.

Effectively fighting a workplace fire with a standard extinguisher requires quick thinking and confidence. If employees are permitted to fight a fire offensively, their first experience with an extinguisher should be in a controlled training environment, not a high-pressure emergency situation.

  1. And, many people incorrectly simplify an appropriate fire extinguisher use situation to “See Fire, Use Extinguisher”.

Workplace fires come in several shapes and sizes. There are several underlying hazards and conditions that fire extinguisher users need to be aware of before making the decision to offensively fight a fire.

Underlying hazards include:

        • Live electricity
        • Noxious fumes
        • Smoke and other visibility concerns
        • Location of the fire relative to possible exits
        • Proximity to compressed gases, flammable materials, and other hazards that could escalate the dangers
        • Confined spaces or poorly ventilated areas
        • Equipment susceptible to corrosion

Because of these complex considerations, employers who permit employees to offensively discharge need to provide more extensive training than is typically provided in OSHA HazCom training. This training includes detailed hazard awareness considerations and hands-on, live-fire training. For this reason, it is critical to be clear and deliberate about how you define and train on your fire extinguisher policy.

What Type of Policy is Most Appropriate for Your Safety Program?
Two Common Strategies:
    1. Defensive Fire Extinguisher Use Only

      In a defensive use only policy, the immediate response to smoke or fire is prompt evacuation. Fire extinguisher use is permitted only for egress purposes in the event that fire is blocking the only possible exit.

Policy Requirements:

        • An official written policy in the Emergency Action Plan stating that fire extinguisher use is permitted for defensive use purposes during an emergency evacuation only
        • General OSHA HazCom Training covering the policy and basic fire extinguisher use principles (i.e., P.A.S.S. and fire extinguisher class information)

Organizations Best Suited For This Type of Policy Have:

        • Low risk of fire
        • Hazards that could quickly escalate a fire (e.g. explosives or highly flammable material)
        • Equipment susceptible to damage by improper extinguisher use (see example below)
    1. Authorized Offensive Fire Extinguisher Use

      In an offensive use policy, authorized individuals are permitted to evaluate a fire emergency and actively extinguish the fire if they deem it safe to do so. “Unauthorized” individuals evacuate immediately and use fire extinguishers for defensive, emergency egress purposes only.

Policy Requirements:

        • A well-defined, detailed policy in the Emergency Action Plan permitting offensive fire extinguisher use, including who can fight a fire, training requirements, and conditions in which extinguisher use is and is not appropriate
        • General OSHA HazCom Training covering the policy and basic fire extinguisher use principles (i.e., P.A.S.S. and fire extinguisher class information)
        • Detailed, program-specific fire extinguisher use training outlining potential underlying hazards and conditions in which extinguisher use is and is not appropriate

Strongly Recommended:

        • Hands-on, live fire extinguisher training
        • Establishment of a formal fire response team or list of authorized individuals

Organizations Best Suited For This Type of Policy Have:

        • Moderate to high risk of fire risk in well-characterized areas
        • Hot work operations
        • Materials capable of escalating a fire and ability to quickly isolate those materials before fighting the fire
        • Dedicated fire response teams or specialists
        • Conditions in which the fire poses a higher risk of immediate danger than extinguisher use does
Considerations to Guide Your Policy:

I always highlight the following points when helping organizations decide which type of policy is best for their program.

Hazards Associated with Common Fire Extinguisher Classes:

The two most common “general use” fire extinguishers found in the workplace are Dry Chemical and CO2 fire extinguishers. In my experience, these types cover ~99% of general use cases. The two most notable exceptions are sensitive IT server spaces and specialized uses areas requiring either a Class D fire extinguisher (for flammable metals) or Class K extinguisher (for cooking greases).

Dry Chemical and CO2 fire extinguishers are both rated as Class ABC extinguishers, making them highly versatile. However, each have underlying hazards that pose a risk to employees and/or equipment if used incorrectly.


      • Dry Chemical Extinguishers use a fine powder that can irritate employee respiratory systems and corrode sensitive electronic equipment. Given the potential impact on expensive equipment and the costs associated with cleanup, improper use of dry chemical extinguishers can cause more damage than an isolated fire would in some cases.
      • CO2 Extinguishers use carbon dioxide gas, which eliminates the cleanup and corrosion issues inherent with dry chemical models. However, CO2 gas is an asphyxiant that presents significant health hazards if discharged into a confined or poorly ventilated space. CO2 extinguishers also create a thermal hazard that can cause frostbite if used incorrectly. Furthermore, CO2 extinguishers are generally 2-3x more expensive than comparable dry chemical versions.
Company Liability:

When guiding companies through this decision, I always encourage them to seek legal counsel related to the official policy language. I do this because I feel it’s very important for the key decision makers to be aware of the underlying liability inherent with each policy type. Notably, with the exception of companies with formal, trained fire response teams or those with hot work programs, every company I’ve advised who has sought legal guidance has opted for the defensive fire extinguisher only policy.

Fire extinguisher safety may seem like a minor component of the overall safety program, but decisions made during a fire emergency have a significant impact on employee health and facility well-being. Following development, clearly articulate the specific fire extinguisher use policies to all employees.


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