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Returning to the Physical Workspace Safely

​​The NIH Fire Marshal has been assisting with the first phases of staff returning to their physical workspaces. In some cases, Fire Marshal staff have discovered noncompliant physical modifications, resulting in unnecessary expense or occupancy delays to correct violations, such as obstructed sprinkler heads, fire alarm devices, or exit paths.

As organizations plan and execute additional staff returning, please keep the following fire safety precautions in mind. Remember, it is ALWAYS easier, and usually cheaper, to implement adjustments or physical changes properly the first time rather than make corrections later.

Exit Paths

Social distancing may dictate physical changes to workspaces, but this must be done safely to avoid creating other problems. Moving desks, furniture, partitions and equipment can reduce aisle width, increase travel distance to exits, and create other arrangements that lengthen time for occupants to escape. Moving items can also block equipment such as fire extinguishers and fire alarm pull stations. Before making any such changes, consult with Fire Marshal staff to ensure compliance. Corridor-specific requirements can be found in the NIH Corridor Policy:

Screens and Barriers

Another potential aspect of physical distancing may be the hanging of screens or barriers from the ceiling, or the raising of partitions between workstations. The Fire Marshal is starting to discover instances of fire protection features (such as sprinkler heads, fire alarm devices, exit signs and emergency lights) being obstructed by pandemic-related renovations. Again, Fire Marshal staff are available to conduct the proper review and inspection before any such screens or barriers are installed. Small projects can use the "IC-Self Performance Program/Handyman Services" program by following the procedures here:

Fire and Smoke Doors

You may be tempted to prop open doors to minimize hand contact. Fire and smoke doors cannot do their job when they are propped open. Instead, use scrap paper, towels, or tissue to eliminate contact with door handles. Use of hand sanitizer after exiting stairwells, or after any contact with common areas is recommended. Forearm openers may be installed on lever handles, and foot openers are an allowable option. The chance of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 by touching these surfaces is low. Hand hygiene by use of soap and water or hand sanitizer is always recommended when touching common, high touch surfaces. Consult with Fire Marshal staff prior to installing forearm or foot openers.

Stair Travel Direction

The Fire Marshal has received several requested to allow stairs to be designated as either up or down. Stair signage must only direct occupants to travel in the direction of egress, for proper emergency procedures. All persons at the NIH are to be wearing face coverings at all times. This decreases risk when you have to quickly pass others in the stairwell. Alternatively, you could pause on a landing until someone passes. There is no clear data on the transmission between persons in a stairwell, but it is a transient occurrence and would not be considered an exposure. During emergencies, regardless of the decisions during the pandemic, all stairwells can be used to exit the building.

Storage of Supplies

You may be ordering more supplies than usual to conduct operations upon returning to work. It is important that the storage of combustibles be in properly protected rooms. Storage in corridors is not permitted by the corridor policy previously mentioned. Before you place storage in aisles within rooms, or in rooms other than storage rooms, consult with Fire Marshal staff to evaluate the adequacy of the sprinkler system, walls and doors, and exit paths.

Hand Sanitizer

Due to its flammability, the fire code has limitations on hand sanitizer. Individual fluid dispensers cannot exceed 1/3 gallon in corridors and 1/2 gallon in rooms. Dispensers mounted on a wall must not be above or directly adjacent to ignition sources such as outlets and light switches; and they cannot be closer than 48 inches to each other. Before you store a total of 5 gallons or more consult with Fire Marshal staff for proper precautions.

Food Warming or Cooking

As the NIH institutes back to the physical workspace plans, cafeteria re-openings may be staggered. Depending on your location in relation to the nearest open cafeteria, you may be tempted to do more cooking or food warming in your work area. Please consult the Fire Marshal's policy for the safe use of portable cooking appliances:

Electrical Equipment

When returning laptops, printers, or other office equipment used for teleworking, their power cords may have been damaged or crushed at home, during transport back to the NIH campus, or during re-installation. Inspect all cords prior to plugging them back in. Do not use extension cords as a substitute for permanent wiring. Do not "daisy-chain" power strips in series, and only use them within their capacity. Space heaters must be used carefully to avoid fires. Information on their safe use can be found at:

Fire Lanes

If you drive to work, keep in mind that fire lanes are designated to provide adequate space for fire and police response vehicles for quick access to buildings, fire hydrants, sprinkler/standpipe system connections, and fire alarm control rooms. Fire lanes are designated by "NO PARKING-FIRE LANE" signs and yellow or red curbing. Any vehicle in a designated fire lane on the NIH Main Campus is subject to fines and towing.

If you have any questions regarding these back to work issues, please contact the NIH Fire Marshal at 301-496-0487 or use their fire hazard reporting tool: You may remain anonymous when reporting a hazard, but it always helps us to have a contact so we can obtain additional information if needed.