Fires tend to break out in office buildings for different reasons than they break out in homes or industrial settings. That means taking different steps to protect and prepare.
The good news for office managers and office workers is that far fewer fires break out in offices than in homes, warehouses, and factories.
But office fires remain a risk that cause $112 million per year in damages in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s 55-page analysis of structure fires in office properties in the United States. Published in 2013, the report compiled and analyzed fire reports from fire departments across the country.
The report concluded that these were the most common causes of office fires.
1. Cooking equipment (29%)
If your office wanted to conduct a fire drill based on a likely real-life scenario (which is a great exercise), a worker burning a bagel in the toaster and catching the room on fire would be a good scenario to practice.
Like home structure fires, most office fires start in the kitchen. Fortunately, most office kitchen fires don’t make it very far. Despite causing nearly one in three fires, cooking equipment causes only six percent of office fires that result in property damage.
How to prepare: Conduct fire extinguisher training; practice correct fire extinguisher selection and placement
Research what type of fire extinguishers to install and where to install it. Fire extinguishers should be within 30 feet of stoves so they can be accessed quickly, but not so close that smoke or flames could block access.
Make sure to provide employees with fire extinguisher training. It’s an OSHA requirement, and is essential if your employees are going to be able to use extinguishers in a crisis.
2. Electrical distribution and lighting equipment (12%)
Lights and wires are silent risks that can cause destructive fires during hours when no one is around the office to stop the flames. Although they cause fewer fires than cooking equipment, electrical issues are responsible for a larger share of office fires that cause property damage.
How to prepare: Practice correct fire extinguisher selection; get a fire safety assessment
Make sure you have fire extinguishers that are rated for electrical (Class C) fires. Consider getting a professional fire safety assessment of your building to determine how you can minimize your risks of an electrical fire.
3. Heating equipment (11%)
Like electric systems, office furnaces and vents are silent threats that can spark fires if they’re not kept in good repair. Central heating systems are the most common type of heating system, responsible for more than half the office fires in this category. That’s a marked difference from home fires sparked by heating equipment, where space heaters are most often to blame, according to a different NFPA study.
How to prepare: Get a fire safety assessment, including central heating inspection.
A fire safety professional can identify heating systems that are at risk of causing fires, as well as factors that could exacerbate fires that do occur.
4. Intentional fires (10%)
The NPFA report defines intentionally-set fires as those that were deliberately set, either by arson or human accidents such as children playing with matches.
In addition to being responsible for 1 in 10 office fires, intentionally-set fires were the single largest category of fires that resulted in property damage. Twenty percent of property-damage fires in offices were attributed to intentional fires.
How to prepare: maintain automatic sprinkler systems; improve passive fire protection system
Arson is an office manager's worst nightmare. While it might not be possible to predict when someone will commit a heinous crime, office managers can lower the damage from even unpredictable, intentionally set fires by making sure fire protection systems are armed and ready.
Automatic sprinklers are designed to put out all kinds of fires, and can even stop fires that were deliberately set for malicious purposes. Passive fire protection — which means fire-smart building materials and design - can also help.
5. Smoking materials (9%)
This category will likely shrink in future studies to reflect the fact that fewer jurisdictions today allow smoking in offices as compared to 10 and 20 years ago. As of November, 2019, more than half the U.S. states and numerous cities and counties enacted laws that prohibited smoking in workplaces.
How to prepare: Review your office smoking policy, have a safety and evacuation plan
If your office allows smoking, be sure to provide plenty of signs directing smokers to receptacles to safely dispose of hot ashes.
6. Exposure (4%)
Exposure is the spread of fire from an outside of an area to a structure. Office managers can’t do much to stop outside fires from spreading to their offices. But office managers can prepare for this type of fire and help to minimize the spread of the flames.
How to prepare: Improve passive fire protection; inspect automatic fire sprinklers
Passive fire protection is key. When building or remodeling an office, consider what could be done to slow the spread of the flames if a fire broke out. Also, make sure automatic fire sprinklers are working, and that employees know what to do if a fire spreads into the office.
One common solution to protect against office fires
Regardless of whether the biggest threat to your particular office is burned toast, hot ash dumped in a trashcan, or an electrical short, a good starting point to understanding your fire risks and how to minimize them is to schedule a fire assessment.
The statistics described in this article outline the most common types of office fires in the United States in general. But of course specific fire hazards vary from office to office. In the course of an assessment a fire safety professional will be able to help you identify the specific hazards in your office, as well as the concrete steps you can take to lower your fire risks.