Fire Hazards in Commercial Kitchens
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that fire departments respond to more than 7,000 fires in eating and drinking establishments in the U.S each year. Of these, more than half (57%) originate in the kitchen, ignited by cooking equipment. These fires cause hundreds of injuries and multiple deaths, and lead to an average of $246 million in direct property damage per year. The graphic below highlights some of the primary fire danger zones in a commercial kitchen. Making sure staff is aware of fire hazards and fire safety measures is the first step in preventing these disastrous events.
Fire Suppression System
Every commercial kitchen should be equipped with a well-maintained fire suppression system. In the past, restaurants have often opted for a dry chemical extinguishing system, designed to control lower-temperature fires fueled by animal fats. However, as vegetable oils have largely replaced fat-based oils, these systems are no longer adequate. A modern commercial kitchen should be equipped with a UL300 listed fire suppression system, designed to control the intense, high-temperature fires that result from burning vegetable oils. The NFPA has created a Standard for Wet Chemical Extinguishing Systems, NFPA 17A, in this connection.
These systems should be serviced regularly, cleaned of grease build-up and well-maintained. Every kitchen should have at least one individual tasked with checking service tages regularly and noting when the next maintenance check is due. In between servicing, nozzles on the system should be checked regularly to ensure they are unblocked and properly aimed and that their covers are present and in place.
Though not generally a cause of fire, light bulbs can be a source of injury in a commercial kitchen fire. As temperatures rise beyond normal, the air inside a light bulb will expand, often causing the bulb to explode, sending fragments flying at high velocity. Anyone in the vicinity working to control the fire is then in danger of being injured by these high-velocity shards. This hazard can be eliminated by covering light bulbs near cooking equipment with explosion-resistant covers. This is a relatively low-cost investment and an easy way to help prevent serious injury during a fire.
The deep fryer is one of the most obviously hazardous areas in a commercial kitchen. Essentially a vat full of fuel, a fryer can mean doom if proper precautions are not taken. Fortunately, these precautions can be quite simple.
All fryers should be placed an adequate distance (at least 16 inches) from any equipment that may produce an open flame, in order to avoid ignition through splashes. If the space in the kitchen does not allow for such an arrangement, a 16-inch, noncombustible dividing wall can serve the same purpose. Fryers should also be equipped with automatic fuel shut-off valves so that, in the event of a fire, combustible fuel does not continually pour in to feed the flames.
Commercial ovens should be cleaned regularly, not only for reasons of health safety, but also to prevent buildup of combustible substances. They should also be placed far enough from other equipment to avoid the transfer of heat from one to the other. Any equipment placed inside the oven should be made of noncombustible material (this would seem obvious, but is overlooked more often than one might think) and should be easy to clean, for the same reason that the oven should be cleaned regularly.
Hood and vent system
The NFPA has created a Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations, NFPA 96, which is available online at no cost. The most recent version was published in 2014 and will remain in effect until a new edition is published in 2017. Commercial kitchen managers should be familiar with the guidelines laid out therein and adhere to them as closely as possible.
Every commercial kitchen must have a hood, which should be connection to a ventilation system that leads outside the building. The hood should cover all heat-producing equipment (stove, oven, griddle, fryer, etc.) and should be constructed of a sturdy, noncombustible material, usually steel. Like the fire suppression system, the hood and vent systems should be cleaned and maintenanced regularly to keep them free of grease build-up that can quickly transport a kitchen fire to other parts of the building. The cleaning cycle should be heavily informed by the volume of use in the kitchen. All vents should have grease filters properly installed (not hanging part way off or partially deteriorated) and that can be easily removed for regular cleaning. Grease traps on the hood should drain into a non-flammable metal container, which should be emptied regularly and safely.
Every commercial kitchen should have at least two fire extinguishers on-hand and ready for action. A Class K fire extinguisher is needed for initial response to grease fires, which burn with greater intensity than fires fueled by other materials. Class K extinguishers are specially designed to suppress these fires without splashing fuel and spreading the fire further. At least one of these should be mounted within 10 feet of any cooking equipment. The kitchen should also have a regular Class ABC extinguishers easily accessible for other types of fires. All staff should be trained in the use of both classes of fire extinguisher and extinguishers should be tested regularly.
Like so much else in the kitchen, trash cans should ideally be constructed of noncombustible materials. They should be emptied regularly to prevent an accumulation of fire fodder, should be kept a safe distance from open flame, and should come equipped with sturdy lids to keep their contents from becoming fuel.
Other things to consider
- Control valves for gas and other fuel should be easy to identify, readily accessible and in good working condition. At least one staff member on every shift should be well familiar with this equipment and responsible for shutting off all such valves in the case of a fire.
- All employees working in any capacity in the kitchen should be trained in the safe operation of all cooking equipment. Regular and systematic training in fire safety and prevention should be provided to every employee, whether working in the kitchen or on the floor, and instructions for the operation of fire safety equipment should be easy to identify and access.
- All kitchen, electrical, and safety equipment should be inspected on a regular basis.
Fire safety is not an issue that can be left on the back burner. Too often, lax policies and procedures are identified only after a disaster has occurred. Take the time now to protect your staff, customers, and your business by ensuring that adequate safety measures are taken in your commercial kitchen.