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Fire Safety and Escape Plans for Businesses

February 26, 2024

There were 16,500 office and store fires in the United States in 2020 that caused $932 million in direct property damage, according to data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System.

Businesses are legally required to follow policies for fire prevention in order to protect people, their property, nearby structures and air quality.

Causes of fires in commercial buildings are similar to that of fires in residential homes. The leading cause of office and store fires in 2020 was cooking, at 29.4 percent. More than 11 percent of the fires were intentional. The next three leading causes were electrical malfunction, accidents/carelessness and appliance malfunctions.

Extensive, detailed building codes and regulations, available through the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), are in place to protect buildings and properties, so businesses must meet these requirements. You can review Emergency Action Plan recommendations on the OSHA site.

Generally, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, employers must prepare for emergencies by doing the following:

  • Ensuring that fire protection features – such as fire extinguishers, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors – are properly designed, installed and maintained.
  • Posting clear fire escape plans on every level of a building.
  • Teaching employees about exit locations, escape routes and fire protection equipment.
  • Checking the condition of fire ladders and fire escapes.
  • Conducting regular emergency drills.

Employees can help keep their workplaces safe as well by doing the following:

  • Regularly checking for damaged or overloaded electrical outlets, cords and cables.
  • Keeping anything that can burn away from electrical equipment.
  • Never leaving portable heating devices unattended.
  • Keeping workspaces and equipment clean.
  • Planning and practicing multiple escape routes in case one is blocked.
  • Ensuring windows can be opened and screens can be removed.
  • Removing any obstacles from exits.

Minimum Fire Prevention Requirements

According to OSHA standards, a fire prevention plan must be in writing, be kept in the workplace and be made available to employees for review. (An employer with 10 or fewer employees may communicate the plan orally to employees.)

At a minimum, the fire prevention plan must include:

  • A list of all major fire hazards, proper handling and storage procedures for hazardous materials, potential ignition sources and their control and the type of fire protection equipment necessary to control each major hazard.
  • Procedures to control accumulations of flammable and combustible waste materials.
  • Procedures for regular maintenance of safeguards installed on heat-producing equipment to prevent the accidental ignition of combustible materials.
  • The name or job title of employees responsible for maintaining equipment to prevent or control sources of ignition or fires.
  • The name or job title of employees responsible for the control of fuel source hazards.

An employer must review relevant sections of the fire prevention plan as applicable.

Escape Routes and Diagrams

Most employers create maps from floor diagrams with arrows that designate exit route assignments, according to OSHA. These maps should include locations of exits, assembly points and equipment (such as fire extinguishers, first aid kits and spill kits) that may be needed in an emergency. Exit routes should be:

  • Clearly marked and well lit.
  • Wide enough to accommodate the number of evacuating personnel.
  • Unobstructed and clear of debris at all times.
  • Unlikely to expose evacuating personnel to additional hazards.

For more information on exit routes, required height and widths, door access and hinges, see OSHA’s Design and Construction Requirements for Exit Routes.

Drawings that show evacuation routes and exits should be posted prominently for all employees to see. See OSHA's Floorplan Diagram example and OSHA's Interactive Floorplan Demonstration.

For details about fire code regulations for businesses, see the OSHA site or consult with a local fire marshal.