An important fire prevention safety precaution is to assign a fire watch person or personnel during and after tasks that involve potential heat or ignition sources, also known as hot work. Fire watch can help workers prevent fires that could lead to property damage, serious injuries, or worse.
According to the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), the majority of non-home structure fires involving hot work are caused by cutting or welding or having a heat source too close to combustibles. Various construction activities commonly involve open flames or heat sources that have the potential to ignite a combustible material. All too often, even with strict safety measures, these ignition sources may cause smoldering or spark a small fire that, if unnoticed, could be catastrophic.
OSHA Standard 1926.352(e) When the welding, cutting, or heating operation is such that normal fire prevention precautions are not sufficient, additional personnel shall be assigned to guard against fire while the actual welding, cutting, or heating operation is being performed, and for a sufficient period of time after completion of the work to ensure that no possibility of fire exists. Such personnel shall be instructed as to the specific anticipated fire hazards and how the firefighting equipment provided is to be used.
A Fire Watch is a person or personnel assigned to monitor the safety of any tasks that could potentially ignite materials and start a fire.
Examples of tasks where a fire watch should be used to guard against fires include:
- Welding, Cutting and Brazing
A fire watch is especially important and useful in areas where there are combustible materials that could be ignited within a 35-foot radius of hot work.
OSHA Standard 1910.252(a)(2)(iii)(A) Fire watchers shall be required whenever welding or cutting is performed in locations where other than a minor fire might develop, or [when any specific conditions exist involving combustible materials as described in this section of the standard].
The fire watch should be posted in the area near the work performed and equipped to find and prevent any stray sparks, slag, or heat sources from starting a fire.
The fire watch should also be considered as a critical part of the fire warning system because they will notify workers in the immediate area of a fire and alert emergency fire personnel if a fire starts to get out of control.
The key responsibilities of a fire watch include:
- Ensure firefighting equipment is readily available and ready for use during fire watch
- Keep the immediate area free of combustible materials within a 35-foot radius near the hot work, whenever possible
- Watch for fires and sparks, slag, or heat sources that could lead to fires
- Communicate with the workers and warn them if tasks are causing an excessive risk of fire
- Extinguish any small or incipient-stage fires immediately
- Stay in the area during the work and for at least 30 minutes after the work tasks are finished to monitor all areas where hot work was performed to make sure that there are no smoldering materials
- Call for emergency fire personnel and begin evacuation procedures immediately, if it becomes necessary
Workers designated to fire watch duty must be equipped with fire-extinguishing equipment readily available for the specific types of fires they may encounter. The class of fire extinguisher must match the type of fire especially if combustible metals, electricity, or oils or grease are present in the area of the work. The fire watch should be trained in the use of the fire extinguishing equipment.
OSHA Standard 1926.352(d) Suitable fire extinguishing equipment shall be immediately available in the work area and shall be maintained in a state of readiness for instant use.
Personnel working as a fire watch should always pay close attention to the work area, exit routes, and any changes or obstacles that could prevent a safe evacuation. The fire watch should be diligent in looking for hidden fire dangers especially in storage locations, crawl spaces, and concealed areas where sparks or slag could have been thrown by the work performed.
Designated fire watchers need to know the location of any manual fire alarm stations and understand the proper steps to take for fire response and sounding alarms.
Fire watch personnel need to be familiar enough with the job site, structure and location, so that if there is a need to report a fire, they are able to give proper directions and information to the fire department. Fire watch personnel should inspect the job site prior to the hot work to make sure that combustible materials are removed, covered, or protected by fire-safe materials.
When hot work like welding, cutting or heating is conducted on or near walls, upper-level floors, ceilings or other building dividers, a fire watch may need to be positioned on the opposite side of that partition because sparks or heat transfer may introduce a fire hazard to this adjacent area.
Multiple fire watch personnel should be designated to provide sufficient coverage if the work site is large, if there are several hot work activities occurring simultaneously, or if there is hot work being performed that requires fire watch on opposite sides of a partition, like a wall.
OSHA Standard 1910.252(a)(2)(iii)(B) Fire watchers shall have fire extinguishing equipment readily available and be trained in its use. They shall be familiar with facilities for sounding an alarm in the event of a fire. They shall watch for fires in all exposed areas, try to extinguish them only when obviously within the capacity of the equipment available, or otherwise sound the alarm. A fire watch shall be maintained for at least a half hour after completion of welding or cutting operations to detect and extinguish possible smoldering fires.
The fire watch should be aware of any emergency switches, electrical shut-off devices and main power cut-offs, as well as the shut-off locations for gas, oil, process water and any other areas that may be hazardous to personnel or add fuel to a potential fire.
The fire watch should only attempt to extinguish a fire if it is within the capacity of their training and the fire-fighting equipment available.