July/August 1994

Special Fire Safety Edition

While various fire-related articles have appeared in past issues of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Safety (DOES) newsletter, there has yet to be collected in one place a compilation of the fire issues affecting the campus community from a safety point of view. Therefore, this entire edition of the DOES newsletter will be devoted to fire safety and fire concerns on campus.

Articles include:

  • how to recognize and reduce fire hazards in the dorm and laboratory
  • fire protection issues such as fire doors, extinguishers, fire drills, and what to do in case of a fire.

Fire is a very serious and life-threatening possibility, and we urge everyone to take the time to familiarize themselves with the important fire-related issues covered in this edition of the newsletter. If you have questions that aren't addressed here, please call DOES at x2907.

Campus Fire Hazards

While in general there may be more chance of fire during the holiday season, fires can erupt anytime or anywhere there are fire hazards present. Below are some potential fire-starters and some tips on how to help keep your laboratory or residence hall fire-free.


Don't smoke in bed or near flammable materials. Use large ashtrays and be sure ashes, matches and cigarette ends are cold before you dump them. Don't smoke while intoxicated.

Electrical Abuse

Use of "octopuses" to obtain more outlets can result in overloaded circuits. Make sure that you match your appliance power requirements to the circuit power. Extension cords should be limited to temporary use.

Trash Storage

Dispose of all waste as soon as possible. Waste material should be stored in a safe place, not in corridors or stairways.

Obstacles in Exitways

Storing bikes, chairs, desks, and other items in exitways are prohibited. Blocked exitways during emergencies have caused pileups of fallen people and increase chances of injury or death.

Open Flames

Be very careful with open flames in the lab. Candles or Bunsen burners should never be left unattended. If you leave, even for a moment, put out the flame. Open flames are not allowed in residence halls.

Flammable Liquids

Gasoline, paint, glue, ether, etc., may not be stored in residential buildings. In labs, storage of flammable liquids should be limited to specific quantities and containers.

Alcohol or Drugs

While these substances may not start the fire themselves, people become much more careless under the influence, and that carelessness with cigarettes, matches, or candles may start a fire. In addition, the use of alcohol or drugs can make you especially vulnerable during a fire to being killed by smoke inhalation. You cannot smell smoke when you are asleep, and even healthy young people may not be able to escape from a fire while intoxicated. You may not wake up in time, or you may have difficulty finding the exits.

Fire Safety on Campus: Prevention and Protection

At CWRU, the Department of Occupational and Environmental Safety is responsible for implementing and administering programs for fire safety and protection. The goal of these programs is to provide a campus environment that is as safe from fire hazards as reasonably possible. While every attempt is made to reduce fire hazards, possibility for fires still exists. Therefore, it is necessary to provide controls to minimize the potential for loss of life and/or injury in the event of a fire. This article will define some fire-related terms and will briefly discuss the prevention and protection programs in place on campus.

Fire Prevention

Fire safety involves two main areas: fire prevention and fire protection. Fire prevention concerns controlling flammable and combustible materials and sources of ignition (how much exists, where they are on campus, how they are handled, how they are stored). In order to prevent a fire, potential sources must be eliminated or contained. All fire prevention programs in place on campus strive to do these things, identify the fire hazards and either eliminate or reduce them.

Programs on campus designed to identify these hazards include: in-house DOES inspections, a building monitor program, and outside fire department inspections. Special attention is paid to high hazard areas (like laboratories) and resident halls.

Fire Protection

Fire protection takes over when prevention does not work. If prevention were 100% effective, protection would not be necessary. However, since this is not possible, protection systems are also in place. These systems can prevent a small fire from getting large and warn occupants of buildings of the fire. These protection systems include:

  • alarm systems which give occupants of university buildings "early warning" in the event of the fire. It is the university's policy to provide fire alarm systems in all buildings. These are installed to meet all state and local fire codes and are tested regularly in accordance with these codes. Alarm systems are tested twice per year by an outside service contractor, the records of which are on file with University Security.
  • portable fire extinguishers can also prevent small fires from getting large when handled by a person trained in its use. Each building is equipped with portable fire extinguishers that are inspected annually by an outside service contractor. Any extinguisher needing service will be removed and a replacement one will be put in its place. These records are on file in the DOES.
  • automatic fixed station fire extinguishing systems are provided for specific high hazards areas. These include cooking areas (dormitory or dining hall kitchens), areas where considerable amounts of flammable liquids are used, and places where highly complex and costly electronic or computer equipment is stored. These systems operate automatically from heat sensors or fusible links and may be manually activated by pull stations. They are inspected bi-annually by an outside service contractor.
  • automatic sprinkler systems are in place in a very few buildings. Many more buildings have hoses and standpipes. These systems are tested and maintained by Plant Services.
  • fire drills are conducted to familiarize building occupants with emergency evacuation procedures. An alarm activation should be considered a university order for evacuation; all occupants must evacuate and should not re-enter until advised to do so by the person in charge. Fire drills are conducted by DOES and assisted by Security, bi-annually in residence halls and annually for all other buildings (see related article on page 3).

The policies and programs outlined above are designed to reduce and control fire hazards. No "program" or "system" is perfect, however, and the possibility of a fire occurring is very real, as we have witnessed over the past few years. Recognizing and eliminating potential fire hazards are the best ways to reduce the chances of a fire occurring; knowing how to respond if a fire does occur is vital to getting through it safely.

Chemical "Unknowns": How Fire Can Erupt

It is vital that researchers label working samples of chemicals in the lab with not only their name but with the chemical compounds as well. Two years ago, an unknown (unlabeled) chemical, left on a storage shelf after the previous researcher, dried out and began a reaction that forced the evacuation of the entire Medical School and could have easily exploded or burst into flames.

Unfortunately, old chemicals left on lab storage shelves "for the next guy" are one of the biggest and most expensive problems new lab personnel can have. If they are unknowns, they must be disposed of as hazardous waste, since it costs more for analysis than for disposal. Instead of incurring the cost, researchers usually let these unknowns sit on their shelves, becoming potentially hazardous, reactive or flammable.

The answer to this problem with seemingly no good solution is simple: when you put your name on working samples, add the chemical constituents as well. Put them on even if the solutions are innocuous, such as water or salt solutions, because even though you know they are not dangerous, you also might forget to toss it out when you are done; you might even forget yourself what's in it.

Also, be sure all labels are securely attached; the most detailed description of chemical breakdown on a label does no good if the label falls off.

Chemical inventories from all researchers are now required so that situations like this involving unknowns can be discovered and taken care of as soon as possible. If you have not done a chemical inventory recently, DOES urges you to go through your stock now, looking for any bottles with damaged or missing labels. The potential for fire or explosion is very real when unknowns are on hand, and though reactions may seem unlikely, we have witnessed first-hand the destruction from just such a chemical.

Using Electricity Safely

Electricity is something so taken for granted that we stop wondering whether a piece of equipment is safe very soon after we turn it on. If it works, it must be OK. But there are many things to consider when using electricity in the laboratory since interruptions of electricity often harm or ruin experiments. Even more serious is the possibility of fire, which can occur when electrical connections go awry. Therefore, periodic checking of your electrical equipment, as well as keeping in mind the following suggestions, can help maintain the highest levels of laboratory safety.

  1. All electrical equipment or apparatus used in the lab must be suitable for use and for its location. Open frame motors, exposed heating elements, or anything else that can generate a spark should not be used with or near any procedures using flammable/combustible liquids.
  2. The equipment must be in good condition. Power cords, connecting cables, and wiring should not have any worn or frayed insulation or bare wires. Power plugs and sockets must be securely fastened to the wiring and there should be no splices.
  3. Safety features, fuses, thermostats, grounds, overheat sensing/cutoff devices tipover switches, etc. must be in place and working. Never try to bypass using these or other safety features.
  4. Multitap adapters and extension cords shouldn't be used since they may overload circuits. Don't use more electrical equipment than the room's/building's electrical system can safely handle.
  5. "Custom made" equipment must conform to good electrical safety practices including adequate proper wiring, overcurrent and overheat protection, grounding, no open wires or terminals, etc.
  6. Do not handle any electrical connections with wet hands or when standing in or near water.
  7. Do not try to repair equipment yourself unless you are qualified and fully understand the repairs required. All repairs should be done by qualified personnel.
  8. In case of fire on or near any electrical equipment, turn it off if it can be done safely.

If in doubt, don't use it. Call DOES (x2907) or Plant Services (x2580) if you have any questions regarding the safety of electrical equipment and/or wiring.