A Great Fire Extinguisher Toolbox Talk

A row of red fire extinguishers ready for fire safety exercise.

Every now and then, someone sends me a story or toolbox tip that I just have to share. That was definitely the case with a recent email I received about an idea for a fire extinguisher toolbox talk.

Though perhaps “talk” isn’t quite the right word for it.

The email was from Rick Demaray, the Health, Wellness and Safety Coordinator for the City of Grande Prairie (though he originally used this technique in the Alberta oilfields). He sent me an outline of a safety exercise on fire extinguishers that he gives workers. It’s a pretty straightforward safety meeting at the start. But it quickly goes to some interesting places.

I think it’s a pretty inspired outline for a safety talk. I asked Rick for permission to share it and he readily agreed. (As he said to me, “Sharing is what it’s all about.”).

In the next section I’ll give you Rick’s talk in his own words. Then I’ll take a closer look at why this toolbox talk works so well.

What Rick Did For His Fire Extinguisher Toolbox Talk

Here’s what Rick had to say about his safety meetings on fire extinguishers:

“I give them a very brief description of fire extinguisher safety, answer any questions, and then I turn the tables.

I become the student, and I get the group to instruct me on the safe operation of this specific fire extinguisher. I ask 100 questions because I’ve never seen a fire extinguisher in my life, and I want to get it right!

A standard fire extinguisher with a pin

And because I have instructed on this type, I know what questions to ask. I conclude by saying thank you for training me.

I then have an employee yell “Fire! Help!” I spring into action and grab the fire extinguisher below (hidden from their view until this very moment).

A fire extinguisher that has no pin

And as you can see it has no pin. Remember PASS? Pull the pin is first.

I ham it up and look all over for the pin. I start to get anxious as the fire is spreading and I can’t find the pin! The pin! The pin! Where’s the pin?

And of course the employees know this and try to tell me what to do, and I say, “No! I have to pull the pin first, because YOU said I have to pull the pin first! There’s no pin!”

It’s lots of fun for everyone, and they are very engaged because they are trying to help you by telling you what to do in THIS situation.

The resulting lesson: Not every fire is the same! Nor is every fire extinguisher. Be aware of this, and it can help you in a real-life situation.”

Why this Fire Extinguisher Safety Toolbox Talk Works

What do you think of Rick’s safety exercise? Personally, I love it.

The most obvious reason why this exercise is so successful is that it’s engaging. Workers are active participants. And it’s not forced at all. As Rick emphasizes, the toolbox talk is “fun for everyone”.

One of the secrets that makes it so engaging is that workers are given power—it’s their job to teach you—the teacher. They also have a rooting interest in what’s happening, because in order for them to succeed as teachers Rick has to use the fire extinguisher properly.

This safety talk also does a great job of getting workers to think through the entire process of using a fire extinguisher in multiple ways.

First, they have to go through the general principles of how to use it. And then, Rick gives them a real-life scenario where there’s a (fake) fire, he grabs the extinguisher and suddenly they have to think on their feet.

This works so well because it offers specific challenges that need to be addressed. The PASS method of dealing with workplaces fires is no longer just theoretical. And by having to think about fire extinguishers in several different ways, workers are much more likely to absorb and remember the fire safety lesson. It also prepares them to think on their feet if there’s ever a real fire.

There’s one last thing I want to point out about this fire extinguisher toolbox talk, and that is the fact that it makes a pretty mundane topic a lot more interesting.

Fire prevention is a major safety issue. But almost all fire safety meetings, toolbox talks and training say the exact same thing. After repeating the same old, same old for several years, workers are guaranteed to get bored. (I bet a lot of trainers get bored with annual fire safety training too, but that’s another issue.)

Rick’s approach really mixes things up. It gives everyone an entirely new look at an old problem.

I’ve talked about how this fire safety meeting improves engagement and knowledge retention. I’m also willing to bet that the next time Rick says it’s time for a toolbox talk on fire extinguishers, workers are a lot more likely to pay attention—even if he’s only doing a standard review of fire safety training and best practices.

This is a great talk to use at your next fire safety meeting or refresher training. It also works well as a toolbox talk for October if you want to run it during Fire Safety Week.

But you don’t need to limit when you can do this exercise. Feel free to try it in your next safety talk. Because this is a great (and unexpected) way to get people’s heads back in the game when it comes to fire safety—and that’s something worth doing at any time.

Thanks to Rick Demaray for sharing this fire extinguisher toolbox talk/safety exercise. Let me know what you think of Rick’s write-up or share your own fire extinguisher training in the comments below.

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