Last updated: 23.02.22

Fire Safety: A Guide to Fire Extinguishers

Why is Fire Safety important?

A fire in the workplace is something that can happen to business of every sort and has the potential to injuries employees, destroy property, and even cause accidental deaths if the situation isn’t handled properly. Fires can start from relatively surprising places, like electrical faults with computers, as well as everyday activities going wrong, like fires in a kitchen at work.

Because of the unpredictable nature of fires, it’s imperative that all businesses of any size have a fire safety policy to ensure any fire is correctly handled to minimise any risk. An important piece of equipment that should be present in every workplace is a fire extinguisher, which helps prevent small fires from getting out of hand and should be readily available to staff in case of a fire related emergency.

There are different fire extinguisher types available in order to tackle different types of fire, so it’s important to know how to use each type of fire extinguisher, particularly if you're a fire safety officer at your workplace. Using the wrong type of fire extinguisher on the wrong fire can be ineffective and even dangerous.

Fire safety training, such as Virtual College's Fire Safety e-learning course, should be made available to all employees, covering key areas such as recognising fire hazards, how to safely escape from a building and knowing how to use a fire extinguisher.

What different types of fire are there?

Before understanding which fire extinguisher is appropriate for differing scenarios, you need to know the different type of fire which can occur. Fires are classified into six categories, and there are different corresponding fire extinguisher classes too. The fire types are:

  • Class A - fires containing solid materials, e.g. wood, straw, paper or textiles.
  • Class B - fires involving flammable liquids, e.g. petrol, diesel or paint.
  • Class C - fires including flammable gases, e.g. methane and propane.
  • Class D - fires which include flammable metals, e.g. magnesium and titanium.
  • Class E - fires involving electrical equipment, e.g. computers and fuse boxes.
  • Class F - fires usually occurring in a commercial kitchen and involving cooking oils, e.g. deep fat fryers.

What fire extinguisher should I use?

Depending on the type of fire you encounter, you will need to use a specific type of fire extinguisher designed to effectively put it out. This is an important factor to consider when deciding your fire safety policy, as someone who is trained or qualified will need to perform a risk assessment in regards to what possible types of fire are likely to occur in your workplace and what the necessary fire extinguishers would be. You only need to have the relevant fire extinguishers on the premises as its unlikely most businesses will encounter every type of fire. For example, an office is incredibly unlikely to suffer a fire involving flammable metals and may not regularly contain flammable liquids.

Below is a list of the different fire extinguisher types available, the colour coded label which should be visible on the front of the fire extinguisher, and when they should be used:

  • Dry powder fire extinguishers -
    Used on Class A, B, C and electrical fires, and will have a blue label. To use them, aim the jet at the base of the fire until all flames are extinguished. If the fire extinguisher has a hand control, use this to let the air clear before tackling the fire again if needed.
  • Water fire extinguishers -
    Used exclusively on Class A fires and will have a red label. These should be aimed at the base of the fire, with a sweeping motion carried out until the fire is extinguished. They should never be used on fires involving flammable liquids, gases, cooking or electrical fires, as they could make the situation worse.
  • CO2 fire extinguishers -
    Used on Class B fires, as well as those involving a large amount of electrical equipment, and will have a black label. To extinguish a fire with a CO2 extinguisher, aim the horn at the base of the fire and sweep the jet across the area of the fire. Never hold the horn, as it could freeze your skin.
  • Foam fire extinguishers -
    Used on Class A and B fires and will have a cream label. For a Class A fire, point the extinguisher at the base of the flames and use a sweeping motion. For Class B, aim the extinguisher at the inside of the container, above the burning liquid, where possible.
  • Wet chemical fire extinguishers -
    Used primarily on Class F fires in a commercial kitchen setting, but can also be used on Class A and B fires, and will have a yellow label. If this is a kitchen oil fire, you'll need to use a slow, circular motion to extinguish it most effectively, using the entire contents of the extinguisher.

There are also specialist and alternative versions of both the dry powder and water fire extinguishers which are available to tackle specific types of fire. These would be raised if relevant when deciding upon your fire safety policy by the qualified party assessing the fire risks within your workplace.

Using other fire safety equipment

When tackling fires in the workplace, it’s important to know which other tools are available to use outside of just fire extinguishers. Having a comprehensive knowledge of fire safety is the key efficiently and effectively dealing with fires before they escalate. Alternative fire safety equipment includes:

  • Fire blankets -
    Used to tackle hot oil fires, e.g. from a frying pan, or used on clothing that has caught fire by smothering the flames.
  • Fire buckets -
    Used to help extinguish some types of fire by quickly applying a large quantity of water or sand, and have the advantage of being able to be quickly refilled
  • Fire hoses - these contain water or foam and can be used to extinguish fires in a similar way to their fire extinguisher counterparts. They shouldn't be used on fires containing electrical equipment or flammable liquids.

For more information about fire safety in the workplace, check out Virtual College's Fire Safety e-learning course here. This CPD accredited course covers all the basics of fire safety at work and is suitable for almost anyone to arm them with the right knowledge around how to tackle small fires.

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