In a Pennsylvania Small Business Development Center presentation, Mark Harmon discussed fire prevention for businesses. Harmon is a compliance assistance specialist with the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The information in his presentation was based on current PA OSHA laws and regulations. Farm businesses should check with their state and/or federal OSHA offices to learn which laws and regulations are relevant to their businesses.

Fire Basics

To create a fire, three elements must be present: oxygen, fuel and heat (or ignition source). This is referred to as the “fire triangle.” Add in the fourth element, the chemical reaction, and it’s known as a “fire tetrahedron.” If any of these components are removed, a fire will go out.

Because one of the components – oxygen – is present virtually anywhere, the focus must be on preventing fuel from coming into contact with an ignition source. Ignition sources include open flames, smoking, static electricity, hot work (for example, welding), hot surfaces, electrical and mechanical sparks and lightning. Fuel includes anything that is combustible or flammable.


Cigarette smoking in the workplace is one obvious ignition source. “I would advise that you have a specific location in which people are allowed to do that,” Harmon said.

Ideally, the location should be in a remote location and should contain signage indicating that it’s the smoking spot. Better yet, according to Harmon, is to eliminate smoking entirely from the workplace.

Hot Work

Before undertaking the cutting and welding of metal, the work area should be inspected by the individual responsible for authorizing the operations. After hot work is completed, someone should watch for fire for a minimum of 30 minutes. A fire extinguisher should be within 10 feet.

Flammable Waste

Flammable waste includes solvents, rags and liquids. These types of combustive waste materials should be stored in a red metal can with a tight-fitting lid.

“You’re putting a lid on it so as to prevent those vapors from coming into the production area and causing a fire hazard,” Harmon explained.

Storage of Flammable Hazards

Use only approved containers for storage of fuel. Keep containers closed when not in use. Store flammable materials away from exits or passageways, and be sure to keep them away from ignition sources.

“If you’ve got a plastic milk jug, and you’re putting gasoline in it, that is not an approved container for gasoline,” Harmon said. Red containers are for gas, yellow for diesel and blue for kerosene.

Put fire prevention at the forefront

Combustible Dust

“I always like to throw this in anytime we’re talking about fires. It amazes me how many people don’t consider dust a fire hazard, but it is,” Harmon said.

Wood produces combustible dust, as do plastics and many agricultural materials. Metal dusts – aluminum, bronze, iron carbonyl, magnesium and zinc – are also combustible.

There are testing protocols for compostable dusts; simply sweep some of the small particles in a container and send it to a laboratory which will ignite it in a control chamber.

“If you’ve never seen a combustible dust explosion, it’s very violent,” Harmon said.

Flexible Cords

Flexible extension cords were never meant to be used on a long-term, continuous basis. They are for temporary use only.

Often, extension cords warm to the touch and they begin to break down. “If you’ve ever had a flexible cord that you’re using and it is hot, I’ll say you’re using it in such a way that was not intended. By getting it hot, you should also understand that it will create a fire if it gets hot enough,” Harmon said.

Extension cords should be used in accordance with the listing and labeling of the manufacturer. Cords should also be uncoiled and inspected before use and to make sure the amperage of the cord is appropriate for the job.


“When we talk about fire prevention, housekeeping should always come into question. I hope companies take the opportunity to walk through their facility on a regular basis because we all generate waste,” Harmon said.

Trash receptacles should be emptied on a regular basis, and they should never be overflowing. Exits should never be blocked by trash or piles of debris.

“The idea,” he said, “is you’re setting yourself up for a fire, putting fuel in that area. Because we already have the oxygen, the only thing that would need is an ignition source.”

Fire Extinguishers

Different types of fires require specific types of fire extinguishers. Fire extinguishers are broken into classifications: A, B, C, D and K.

  • A is for common combustibles like wood, paper and cloth.
  • B is for flammable liquids and gases like gasoline, propane and solvents.
  • C is for live electrical equipment such as computers.
  • D is for combustible metals such as magnesium, lithium, titanium and aluminum.
  • K is for cooking media like oils and fats.

Fire extinguishers are available in combinations. For example, ABC extinguishers are common.

Harmon said, “Fire extinguishers should be charged, readily available and in a serviceable condition. I think it would be good for everyone to understand how to operate a fire extinguisher.”

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin