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Think a fire can’t happen at your operation? Think again.

By Connie Lannan

October 19, 2023

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that on average there are more than 200 workplace fires per day, with an average of more than 5,000 people injured by workplace fires annually. Those are startling statistics — ones no rental operator nor their employees want to be part of.

So, what can you do to help mitigate your rental operation’s fire risks? It starts by taking important prevention measures, says Andy Dresher, American Rental Association (ARA) education training development manager, who also serves as an active-duty firefighter, captain and president of the Union Deposit Volunteer Fire Co. 47, Hershey, Pa. Such measures include:

Having all doors and escape routes accessible and all emergency exits clearly marked. “Usually you don’t see any blocks on your entry doors, but they can be in your maintenance areas — a piece of equipment or something else that is blocking your way out the door. Along with that, you need to make sure that all pathways, walkways and aisles remain open. Emergency exits need to be clearly marked. If you ever need to make a quick exit, you don’t want to navigate over an obstacle course to get out of the building. Firefighters appreciate that, too, because you can’t see anything in a fire,” he says.

Having the appropriate fire extinguishers. “You need to have fire extinguishers that are suitable for handling the types of fires you might have at your operation. They also need to be inspected monthly. An ABC fire extinguisher is a good general purpose extinguisher,” Dresher says. “Class A fire extinguishers handle anything that makes ash, paper, wood or organic materials that burn. Class B fire extinguishers are for anything that comes in a barrel — any fuel, such as gas or diesel. Class C fire extinguishers are for electrical fires. You should not spray water on an electrical fire as you could electrocute yourself. There also is the Class D fire extinguisher for metals such as magnesium that can be part of engine blocks and small motors. If magnesium catches on fire, it is very hard to get out. If you put water on magnesium, it will spark up and be like the Fourth of July.”

Installing fire/smoke detectors and a sprinkler system. “You should have a monitored alarm system — both smoke alarms and heat detectors. Sprinkler systems also are wonderful for suppressing fires or keeping them at bay,” Dresher says.

Storing your flammable liquids properly. “Are they stored properly in a flammable liquids cabinet? Do you also have the proper gas cans? If you are using plastic cans, that is not the right container. You need to use safety cans,” he says, adding that welders or grinders generate sparks and should not be near any flammable liquids or hazards that could ignite a fire.

Placing and marking fuel storage tanks appropriately. “A lot of rental places have outside storage tanks, whether it is for diesel, gas or both. Many times they have propane, too. From a fire standpoint there are many things they need to do by code to minimize the risk of a fire. One thing is to prevent someone from running into them and making sure there are no open flames or anything else nearby that would cause a spark. That means not letting your employees take smoke breaks around the fuel storage tanks,” Dresher says.

Putting oily rags in appropriate containers. “They need to be in the proper container. Also, if you spill something, do those in that area know what to do to clean it up? Do they understand the risks involved? Know that spontaneous combustion is real, especially when it comes to oily rags,” he says.

Storing and disposing of lithium-ion batteries. “They are a real threat if they are damaged. If you store them improperly, that could cause a problem. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for storing and charging. And remember, they can’t be thrown in the trash,” Dresher says, noting that this might become more of an issue as more equipment rental operations move to battery-powered equipment.

Ensuring fire lanes or fire hydrants on your property are not blocked. “There is a reason why no one should park there,” Dresher says, noting that they are critical spaces for fire trucks.

Having an accurate and thorough inventory list. “Rental operators need good inventory lists. Fire departments want to know that and where the fuel tanks are, typically marked with a 704 diamond with different numbers on them to tell you how hazardous they are. That will help firefighters know what they will be dealing with in case of a fire,” he says.

Employee training is another key component, Dresher says. That means making sure your employees know where the escape routes are, where the fire extinguishers are located and how to use them, how to properly address spills, know their surroundings and what could spark a fire, etc. To help in that training, Dresher notes that members can access ARA’s resources, such as the “Take 5 for Safety,” “Fire Extinguisher Safety Training” and the “Monthly Fire Extinguisher Inspections” — all on RentalU, ARA’s educational platform.

Another aspect that Dresher stresses is “if you or your employees come into a building in the morning and smell that rotten-eggs odor, that means there is a gas leak and you need to get out of the building immediately and call 911. Small leaks as well as volatile situations all have the same smell. Also, as you enter or leave, do not flip a light switch on as a tiny spark is all it takes,” he says.

Prevention efforts are so important. That is why “when the fire marshal comes, take the recommendations seriously. Ask them to come in and do an assessment of your operation. The fire marshal is there to help minimize risks. They are not there to offer fines. If the identified problem doesn’t get mitigated, that is when you can be fined,” Dresher says.

As someone who has dealt with so many fires in his career, Dresher knows that no one wants to experience a fire. Your employees are put at risk, your facility can be damaged or totaled, your inventory can be ruined and your business can be interrupted for months on end. Taking a few preventative measures can go a long way. “It’s about always keeping safety top of mind,” he says.