One of the great disaster movies of the 1970’s was The Towering Inferno. It was a story that took place during the grand opening of a new skyscraper. Of course, one of the engineers cut costs during construction and used cheap wiring which led to a fire disaster of major proportions. During the 3 hour spectacular, you could see the famous stars of the day making all kinds of mistakes like taking elevators, using multiple fire extinguishers and running in panic as they try to escape the fire. The film is a clear lesson in how not to handle fire safety wherever you may work.
One of the first pieces of a new lab employee orientation should be safety training, and that should include information about fire prevention and preparedness. Orient the new staff concerning the layout of the department. Show them the exits the designated evacuation meeting location. Be sure to walk both a primary and secondary route to that meeting place, and be sure to use stairs rather than the elevator. If a fire occurs while new employees are present, make sure they are prepared and can safely find a way out of necessary.
If fire fighting equipment is located in the laboratory, and if staff are required to use it when needed, OSHA requires that training for this equipment is provided. Some lab accrediting agencies no longer require hands-on fire extinguisher training, but that is best so that staff does not slowly struggle when handling a real fire situation. Teach employees to only fight small fires (nothing larger than the size of a small waste basket)- let the professionals handle the larger fires for which they are trained. Use only one fore extinguisher at a time so that debris is not accidentally splattered or spread. When using a fire extinguisher, teach staff to remain between the fire and the exit door so they are never trapped inside the room.
Fire blankets are often provided in laboratories, but many may not understand how to use them properly. If fire blankets are in the laboratory, check them regularly to ensure they are not damaged, and educate staff about their uses. A fire blanket can be a great tool to smother a small fire. Simply lay it on top of the fire. If a blanket is needed because an employee or their clothing is on fire, have them lie down and roll up in the blanket to smother the flames. Do not wrap a blanket around someone who is standing- the smoke from the fire can choke the person wrapped in the blanket.
Once initial fire safety training is complete, do not rely on annual computer-based training courses to help staff remain ready if a laboratory fire occurs. Again, while annual hands-on fire extinguisher training and walking the evacuation routes are not required by a regulatory agency, performing these types of drill each year is vital. Only by physically going through the steps of fire and evacuation response can you ensure a smooth, orderly reaction when the real fire does occur. The “muscle memory” created by the drills reinforces a more positive outcome in times of true disaster.
In real life, fires in the laboratory do occur. Hopefully it is a rare event, but it is a dangerous one. In The Towering Inferno movie, people were hurt because fire doors were blocked, elevators were used, and no one knew how to get out of the burning areas. They simply were not ready for a fire situation. Use proper training and fire drills to make sure such an event does not turn into a disaster for your laboratory.