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Help Us Help You! – Know How to Spot Common Fire Safety Hazards in the Workplace

Even though all facilities on the NIH Bethesda and Poolesville campuses are surveyed by the Division of the Fire Marshal (DFM) on a regular basis, fire safety hazards in the workplace can still pop up. With this in mind, the NIH community should not assume the DFM is aware of and/or working to correct every fire safety hazard. Peer responsibility plays a large part in keeping NIH facilities fire safe. Therefore, it is extremely important for the NIH community to be able to spot and correct the more common workplace fire safety hazards before a fire incident occurs.

Below are the top 10 fire safety hazards that are frequently encountered in NIH facilities that can be easily spotted, corrected, and more importantly, prevented.

1. Blocked or locked exit doors

Exit doors are required by fire codes to be unobstructed so that they are readily obvious in the event of an emergency. In addition, exits doors are required to be unlocked and readily available any time the building is occupied.

2. Storage in stairwells

Stairwells are prohibited by fire codes to be used for storage or for the installation of equipment not necessary for safety. The objective is to not use the stairwell for any purpose that has the potential to interfere with its use as an exit.

3. Fire doors propped open

Required fire doors in NIH facilities are typically doors to stairwells, mechanical/electrical rooms, and corridor doors to laboratory work areas. Fire codes prohibit the blocking or wedging of fire doors in the open position so that fire doors are always ready to serve their intended purpose -- to prevent the spread of fire, smoke and hot gases.

4. Improper use of extension cords

Make sure all extension cords and power strips are approved by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and have a UL label. Sometimes extension cords and power strips that are not UL approved do not have a sufficient protective coating over the wires. Electrical shocks, burns or fires can result from using unapproved equipment. 

Do not "daisy chain" power strips with extension cords. In other words, do not hook several extension cords together to energize a power strip located far away from an electrical outlet. Electrical resistance increases with cord length and can cause overheating, leading to a fire or equipment failure. In addition, hooking several power strips together can result in an overload, which can cause a fire, trip a circuit breaker, or cause a loss of power to the electrical equipment plugged into the power strips.

Do not use power strips or extension cords for high power loads such as microwave ovens, refrigerators or space heaters. Power strips and extension cords are for use with low power loads such as computers and audio or visual equipment according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In addition, inspect the wattage of everything plugged into a power strip. Add up the total wattage of all items plugged into the power strip. Do not exceed the total electrical wattage the power strip or extension cord is rated to handle to avoid the hazards of a fire or damage to the electrical equipment plugged into the strip.

5. Material/equipment in corridors that impede egress

A proper means of egress allows unobstructed travel at all times. Fire codes require means of egress to be continuously maintained free of all obstructions or impediments for full instant use in the case of a fire or other emergency.

6. The use of portable space-heating devices in laboratories and health care areas

Fire codes and NIH policy prohibit portable space-heating devices in all health care areas and laboratory work areas.

7. Flammable or combustible liquids and compressed gas cylinders in corridors

NIH Policy Manual 1361 (Corridor Utilization) prohibits the use of corridors for the storage of flammable or combustible liquids and compressed gas cylinders of all sizes. The restriction on the storage of flammable or combustible liquids in corridors is intended to eliminate significant fuel sources for a fire. Cylinders containing compressed gases present a particular hazard because of their high pressure and can act as a missile by reaching a high speed in an extremely short period of time if the valve mechanism breaks. For additional information, please use the following link to NIH Policy Manual 1361 (Corridor Utilization):

8. Tampering with fire protection equipment

Fire codes prohibit any person from tampering with or rendering any portable (i.e. fire extinguisher) or fixed fire protection system or device (i.e. automatic sprinklers, fire alarm system devices, etc.) inaccessible or obstructed from view and/or for proper operation.

9. Missing ceiling tiles

A missing ceiling tile can easily allow hot products of combustion from a fire to rise through the ceiling opening and collect in the space above the ceiling. This effect can severely delay the activation time of automatic fire sprinklers that have been installed at the ceiling level. If you see ceiling tiles being removed by workers in your workplace, please remind the workers to have the ceiling tiles reinstalled in their exact location.

10. Use of equipment with damaged or exposed electrical wiring

Do not use equipment with wiring that is damaged, including cuts or exposed wires. In addition, do not place power cords where they can incur damage during use. Damaged wiring on extension cords or power strips can cause fires and touching a single exposed wire can cause an electrical shock or burn.

The Division of the Fire Marshal (DFM), Office of Research Services, greatly appreciates the ongoing assistance and support of the NIH community as our advocates for keeping NIH facilities fire safe.

To report a fire safety issue or concern directly to the DFM online, please use the following link:   

For questions or assistance regarding any workplace fire safety matter, please contact the DFM at 301-496-0487.