In a previous post we discussed how you can keep your restaurant staff safe from everyday kitchen hazards, covering everything from slips and falls, to burns, lacerations and more. Now we want to focus on fire hazards – how to spot them, how to prevent them, and how to keep your staff safe from them.
Fires: A Restaurant’s Nemesis
Between 2013 and 2015, about 5,600 restaurant fires were reported in the United States, and most of them started in the kitchen. The U.S. Fire Administration, in conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association, reports (NFPA) that these fires cause an annual average of $250 million in property damage. Roughly 65% of all restaurant fires are caused by cooking – and cooking materials are the most frequent accelerants. About 31% of these fires involve deep fryers, 18% involve cooking ranges, and 11% involve cooking grills. While fewer than 15% of restaurants countrywide are protected by a full or partial sprinkler system, over 90% are equipped with overhead hoods with suppression systems in the cooking areas.
The Basics of Restaurant Fire Safety
Restaurants—with their open flames, hot equipment, numerous electrical connections, high-temperature cooking oils, heavy-duty cleaning chemicals, and ubiquitous paper products—have all the ingredients needed for a fire to blaze out of control. These factors contribute to conditions which can lead to a fire emergency occurring in no time at all. Understanding these hazards, and how you can minimize the risk, can help prevent property damage, business downtime, and more importantly, injury or loss of life.
If we look at the top fire hazards within the commercial kitchen, we can start understanding how to decrease the threat.
Grease Fires: A Restaurant’s Mortal Enemy
Grease is one of the most dangerous fire hazards in restaurant kitchens because of how quickly it can build up and how flammable it is once a fire breaks out. In addition, full grease traps that aren’t cleaned may have pieces of food that can easily catch fire when more hot grease is added. Grease residue can build up quickly on exhaust hoods, ducts, and any other grease-removal devices and, if this residue catches fire, your kitchen could be in big trouble. The best way to avoid exhaust-hood and duct fires is by cleaning regularly with a razor or a scraper to avoid buildup in the first place. It is also recommended that you have a qualified contractor service your equipment at regular intervals and to professionally clean exhaust fans.
Electrical Wiring Dangers
Even a small rip in a wire can lead to a fire in your kitchen, so be sure to check for frays, breaks, or damage to any wiring – even those that are out of sight – and don’t use items with damaged cords or with wires that are exposed. If you have electrical cords running behind large appliances, check them regularly or move them to a place that is more visible. Overloaded outlets are another source of electrical fires, so never plug too many items into one outlet or into an extension cord. Instead have an ample number of power points and ensure that power boards have overload and surge protection. In general, leave electrical wiring to professionals; they are the only ones who should install and repair electrical equipment.
Clutter is the Enemy
A busy restaurant receives shipments and deliveries all day long and most items are delivered in bags and boxes, all of which entail wrapping. If these items are stores haphazardly they will not only serve as kindling for a fire, they will also become an obstruction for an evacuation pathway. Any type of clutter in general, and storage boxes in particular, should be either organized or disposed of as quickly as possible to decrease the risk of injury or the spreading of a fire.
Open Flames are the Foe
A busy restaurant kitchen is bound to have multiple open flames at any given time. Open flames are a risk because many things inside the kitchen are flammable – for instance, your clothing. Cloth in general is a hazard around open flames, including dish towels, pot holders, aprons, etc. Make sure you have strict rules about attire while in the cooking area. With many open flames, a loose sleeve or sagging towel can ignite quickly. Employees should also have their hair held back or covered (and not just for hygienic reasons).
Fighting Fire With…
Aside from the preventive measures mentioned above, within the context of each type of hazard other measures can be put in place to help prevent or fight kitchen fires.
Fire Suppression Systems
Regardless of why or how a fire starts, it is vital to suppress it as quickly as possible. Dousing the fire with water is usually not an option, as many fires, such as grease fires, spread with water; at the same time, fire extinguishers can ruin food inside a kitchen when used indiscriminately. Instead, restaurant fire suppression systems offer a way to extinguish a fire quickly and efficiently.
The “Quick Guide to Restaurant Fire Suppression Systems,” points out that most suppression systems connect to both the hood over the range/grill and the gas line running through the cooking stations. A fire needs three things to thrive: oxygen, heat, and fuel. As soon as the suppression system is triggered, the gas line to the appliance will cut off, depriving the fire of fuel. In addition, once the system detects a fire, nozzles installed through the ventilation system of your range hood will discharge a specially designed fire suppressant that covers the flames and starves them of oxygen. As the extinguished fire creates a considerable amount of smoke, the hood kicks on, removing the smoke from the kitchen.
Manual activation of your fire suppression system should be an option, in the event that the system is not triggered automatically. In either case, whether the system is activated automatically or manually, the two-pronged approach of a fire suppression system extinguishes the fire in a localized way so that the entire kitchen isn’t shut down, allowing it to continue operating almost as usual.
Another thing to keep in mind is, that if you’ve switched to cooking with vegetable oil, it burns at a much higher temperature than animal fat, so you may need to update your fire suppression system to deal with these hotter fires. A traditional dry-chemical fire suppression system can take care of a lower-temperature animal-fat fire, but a wet-chemical system is more effective for high-temperature vegetable-oil fires.
Sprinkler systems are among the most useful tools in your firefighting arsenal. Fire sprinklers detect heat – when a blaze ignites, the hot air directly above rises, and spreads along the ceiling. When the air is hot enough and reaches a sprinkler head, it triggers a chain reaction. Most sprinkler heads feature a glass bulb filled with a glycerin-based liquid which expands when it comes into contact with air heated to between 135 and 165 degrees. When the liquid expands, it shatters the glass and the sprinkler head activates. Each sprinkler head is attached to a pipe that connects to a water source outside the building. When heat activates a sprinkler head, a valve opens, allowing pressurized water from the pipe system to spray out. The spray effect is what thoroughly douses the fire and prevents it from reigniting.To limit water damage that could occur in your restaurant’s kitchen, sprinkler heads function individually. Usually, fires can be completely extinguished after just one or two sprinklers are activated. This allows water damage to be confined to the small area where the fire started. In addition, since sprinklers douse fires with much less water than a fire hose, their quick action is less damaging to your property than a visit from the fire department.
Portable Fire Extinguishers
Even if you have a sprinkler system and a fire suppression system in your kitchen, it’s a good idea to have portable fire extinguishers handy as a backup. You’ll need Class K extinguishers for kitchen fires involving substances such as the animal and vegetable fats in commercial cooking oils and greases. A Class K fire extinguisher uses a fine wet mist consisting of an alkaline mixture, which forms soapy foam as it is applied to the fire, quenching the steam and the vapors, and eliminating the risk of the fire reigniting.
Class A, B, and C extinguishers can be used elsewhere in your restaurant for all other fires. Fire extinguishers with a Class A rating are effective against fires involving paper, wood, textiles, and plastics; fire extinguishers with a Class B rating are effective against flammable liquid fires that use a combination of compounds to both smother and extinguish the fire. Class C extinguishers are suitable for electrical fires and use ingredients that are effective due to their nonconductive properties.
Other Measures to Take
Schedule regular maintenance on electrical equipment, and enforce a strict cleaning schedule. Cleaning exhaust hoods is especially important, as grease buildup can restrict air flow. Be sure to also clean walls and work surfaces; fryers, broilers, grills, and convection ovens; and vents and filters. The NFPA Fire Code calls for quarterly inspections of systems in high-volume operations and semiannual inspections in moderate-volume operations.
Store flammable liquids properly, keeping them in their original containers or puncture-resistant, tightly sealed containers in well-ventilated areas away from supplies, food, food-preparation areas or any source of flames. In addition, store paper products, linens, boxes and food away from heat and cooking sources; and dispose of soiled rags, trash, cardboard boxes and wooden pallets at least once a day.
Train your staff how to properly use fire extinguishers. An acronym you may find helpful is PAST – Pull the pin, Aim at the base, Sweeping motion, (stand) Ten feet away. In addition, if a fire breaks out in your restaurant, your staff must take control of the situation and lead customers to safety. Train at least one worker per shift how to shut off gas and electrical power in case of emergency and designate one staff member per shift to be the evacuation manager. That person should be in charge of calling 911, determining when an evacuation is necessary, and ensuring that everyone exits the restaurant safely. Teach new employees about evacuation procedures and the use of fire-safety equipment and give veteran staff members an annual refresher course. Only by properly training employees and following OSHA’s fire safety standards can you protect employees and customers from danger.
Fire Hazards Are Everywhere
There are fire hazards lurking in every corner of your restaurant’s kitchen and learning how to spot them can be the difference between successful prevention versus a call to your local fire department. Keep your kitchen safe by ensuring uncluttered evacuation pathways, maintaining cleanliness, and regular servicing of electrical appliances. Put a fire suppression system in place, along with a sprinkler system, and place fire extinguishers in strategic locations throughout the kitchen and dining area. With proper care and maintenance, you can keep your restaurant staff – and your customers – safe from a restaurant’s many fire hazards.