There are no federal workplace safety rules that prohibit portable electric space heaters in the workplace and statistics regarding commercial property damage caused by space heaters are not readily available. However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of space heaters—resulting in more than 300 deaths. In addition, an estimated 6,000 people every year receive emergency room care for burn injuries associated with contacting the hot surfaces of room heaters, mostly in non-fire situations.
So, as the cold weather sets in, employers may be considering if they should permit portable space heaters or actually discourage their use—even outright ban them. However, some work areas can just be cold. This is a frequent problem with older buildings or those areas near entries or doors. Adding to the challenge, there are many employees with medical conditions that require extra warmth above what is normally considered comfortable and a space heater can fulfill that accommodation without heating up everyone else’s work space.
The good news—like so many other hazards, portable space heaters can be used safely if proper care and precautions are implemented. Any employer permitting the use of portable space heaters should highly consider a written policy to spell out exactly what is proper care and sufficient precautions. It could possibly prevent fires, injuries and even death.
Firstly, OSHA rules do require that electrical equipment must be used according to manufacturer specifications on the unit's label and in the user manual. Therefore, only employer-purchased and issued space heaters with adequate safety features should be used. Generally, regardless of the types of space heaters, the following applies:
- Choose only thermostatically controlled heaters to avoid wasting energy or overheating
- Most heaters come with a general sizing table, so select heaters of varying sizes to fit the size of the areas that needs heating
- Position heaters on a level surface away from foot traffic
- All space heaters must be kept away from any combustible material
- Heaters should have a tip-over automatic shut down feature and a grounded three-pronged plug
- Require that space heaters always be turned off when the area is not occupied—possibly unplugged at night
- Plug heaters directly into a wall outlet and in plain sight
- Remind employees that nothing should ever be placed on top of or touching the space heater
- Heaters missing guards, control knobs, feet, frayed cords, or otherwise damaged must be taken out of service
- Discontinue use of the heater if the heater causes the electrical circuit breaker to trip
It is not recommended that unvented combustion space heaters, such as those fueled by propane, natural gas, and kerosene, be used for heating inside areas. They introduce unwanted combustion products into the environment—including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and water vapor—and deplete air in the space. Check for local regulations banning unvented kerosene and natural gas heaters.
Office Safety is covered under the OSHA General Duty Clause. Good office “housekeeping” and safety policies can prevent injuries. If you have questions about office safety policy, Emilcott can help.