COVID-19 Safety Measures Impacting Fire Safety
As in-person operations resume for many institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a host of new challenges awaits. Resuming normal operations and complying with CDC and state health department guidelines for pandemic safety is a tall task. Educational institutions and other organizations need to make modifications for social distancing in places like classrooms, cafeterias and other spaces. Sanitation and hygiene practices also demand a higher standard of care during the pandemic, meaning the number of hygiene stations and the frequency of sanitation routines have both increased. Finally, there is a greater emphasis on ventilation as schools and offices strive to increase air exchanges in buildings to reduce the airborne spread of COVID-19.
While these measures increase safety from the spread of the coronavirus, they may also be contributing to some hidden fire and life safety hazards.
Dangerous Storage Methods
Many institutions are removing desks and tables from classrooms, cafeterias, and other assembly spaces to comply with social distancing standards. This creates a need for more storage space for unused furniture and supplies. As many already struggle to find adequate storage space under normal circumstances, this practice can lead to storage in unsafe arrangements or locations. These locations include electrical and mechanical rooms, custodial closets, and egress stairwells.
Storing materials in egress stairwells is a fire and life safety hazard, as well as an OSHA and fire code violation. Although this may seem like an acceptable “temporary” solution to focus on pandemic safety compliance, it poses major risks. Blocking egress stairwells could allow fire and smoke to spread through emergency egress stairwells, preventing building occupants from evacuating the building in the event of an emergency.
Storage in electrical and mechanical rooms are also fire hazards, as combustible materials stored close to sources of ignition can ignite and damage the essential building services equipment in these rooms. This storage method can also block access to electrical breakers and building services equipment that staff may need to operate in an emergency situation.
Sometimes, furniture is not moved to storage but is spread out as much as possible in the existing space to comply with social distancing standards. This practice can lead to life safety hazards too, as furniture is sometimes positioned in ways that block or impede access to emergency exits. This is also an OSHA and fire code violation.
Even storage in an acceptable area can result in a fire hazard. This occurs when a storage area is overcrowded and items are stacked too high on existing storage racks for the fire sprinkler system to reach them. If materials are stored too high at ceiling level, fire sprinklers will not reach the top materials, leaving them susceptible to ignition. This could overwhelm the sprinkler system. Sometimes, materials are also stored between storage racks in haphazard arrangements. This scenario creates excessive fire loading for the storage space.
Cleaning Supplies Storage
The need for additional sanitation and hygiene supplies can also create some hidden fire hazards. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer and flammable aerosol disinfectants are being used at a much higher rate, and bulk storage of these products creates unique challenges.
Bulk quantities of these flammable liquids and gels should be stored in UL-listed flammable liquid storage cabinets or approved flammable liquid storage rooms if stored in the building. Another acceptable storage arrangement for these materials is in a storage building or shed that is at least fifty feet from the building.
Other Hazardous Habits
Many institutions are using portable fans to increase air exchanges within a space or building. Portable fans can present electrical hazards if used with electrical extension cords.
In this photo, we see the service cord run under a door where it is connected to an outlet in another room. This would be an OSHA and fire code violation involving temporary electrical service.
Propping open windows and exit doors is another unsafe practice many institutions utilize to increase air exchanges in buildings. This is an unacceptable safety and security exposure, as it can allow unauthorized access to the building. All exit doors should be secured unless alternative safety and security measures have been implemented, such as having security personnel stationed at these doors.
Another common pandemic safety practice is to prop open stairwell and corridor fire doors to increase airflow and reduce instances of people touching doors to open them. As sensible as this practice may appear, it is a fire and life safety hazard as well as an OSHA and fire code violation. Propping open these doors could allow a fire to spread smoke throughout the building very quickly. This could overwhelm the building occupants before evacuation can even begin.
Fire and life safety standards are just as essential now as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. If your institution is struggling with compliance with fire and life safety standards during the pandemic, please contact your RCM&D Risk Consultant for assistance in assessing and addressing your safety concerns.