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Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire!

According to a report published by the NFPA in 2019, smoking was the leading cause of home fire deaths for the five year period reviewed.

Smoking can also result in serious fires in the workplace, often the result of improperly discarded cigarettes.

Fire Prevention Week (FPW) (and throughout October’s Fire Prevention Month), is a great time to remind employees about your workplace smoking policy, including the importance of using designated smoking areas located a safe distance from the building (and using them even during the colder months!).

“A Dumpster Story” featured in Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Laboratory Research, Volume 2, tells a real-life story about what can happen when No Smoking rules aren’t followed! Read on to learn what happens:

I’m pretty much screwed. I sat there in the construction trailer. I didn’t have to guess what was about to happen.

“Marcellus. You’re fired. The video camera recorded you. Collect your check and your tools on the way out.”

Well, that was that. Boy, oh boy. How did I get myself into such a big mess?

I set fire to a dumpster with a cigarette butt. Stupid.

I pretended I didn’t know what happened during the big commotion. Stupid. I didn’t come forward when they were asking if anyone knew what happened. Stupid.

It wasn’t a big fire but the Cambridge Fire Department had to come out. No one was hurt but it was a mess. Work slowed down for half a day. We were already on a tight construction schedule. The construction manager was going to hit my company with a late penalty. Bad. Very bad.

I worked for an HVAC contractor. My job was to install sheet metal air ducts in buildings. I was on a project in Kendall Square, not far from my place in Somerville. I loved that I could take the T to work.

I loved that I was working in an important building. I loved that scientists in there would be curing cancer! My job was to install air ducts so that enough air flowed in, out, and around the building to keep the scientists and office workers safe and comfortable.

In a lab, they need a lot of air changes per hour to keep things clean so I made sure my ductwork fit perfectly.

It was the day before. I’d been at it since 7 am. It was 9 am. I needed a break. I went down to the loading dock. It was about 10 degrees outside so instead of going out to the smoking area, I stayed on the open loading dock.

I was only going to take a short break. I reached into my Carhartt jacket, pulled out a Marlboro, lit it up, and took four or five long draws. That’s all I had time for. I smashed the lit end of the cigarette on the cinder block wall. I flicked the butt into the big dumpster, the one with all the construction junk in it.

I went up to the penthouse to start work on the air handler. We were on a tight schedule. When I got up there, I could smell a little smoke. That’s strange, I thought to myself. Nobody’s been welding up here today.

Then I heard a fire alarm. I wonder what’s up? “Hey, we have to clear the building,” my boss said. “Everyone out!” We went outside and stood on Binney Street in front of the building. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. “Hey, Marcellus, did you hear what happened?” asked my buddy Vinny.“No. What happened?”

It looks like some idiot tossed a cigarette into the big construction dumpster out back. The junk caught fire. It was smoldering so one of the cleaning contractors called the fire department.”

Oh, s***! I was the culprit. I hope no one finds out… An hour went by.

It was cold but we had to stand by so that we could get back to work at a moment’s notice.“Okay. Everyone back to work!” the construction manager shouted. “It’s all clear. Everyone can get back to work.”

Finally, we could go back inside.

Around 3 pm, the construction manager came around asking if anyone had seen anyone toss a cigarette into the dumpster. I was terrified.

I should have opened my mouth but I was afraid that I would get fired. I was afraid that I’d get my boss into trouble. It was a bad mistake, a stupid mistake, and I hoped nobody would find out what I did. I went straight home from work. I had a terrible night. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I barely made it out of bed the next morning.

I grabbed two cups of black coffee. I made it back to work at 7 am. I saw my boss standing on the top step to the construction trailer.“Marcellus. Come in here,” my boss called. “I need to talk to you.”

I sat down.

“Marcellus. You’re fired. The video camera recorded you. Collect your check and your tools on the way out.”

That was that. It was over. I really loved my job but I really screwed up bad. How was I going to tell my father?


Let’s look at what went wrong:

  • Marcellus didn’t follow the No Smoking rules.
  • Marcellus didn’t fully extinguish his cigarette.
  • Marcellus walked away.
  • Marcellus should quit smoking.

It could have been much worse. What if there were more flammables in the dumpster? What if instead of immediately calling the fire department, someone tried to extinguish the fire, and the fire went out of control? It could have been much worse.

With contractors coming in and out of a lab facility, building owners and their tenants have obligations to ensure that those contractors understand the safety rules… and follow them.

Marcellus’ story is sad but true. There are probably tens if not hundreds of stories just like his that we never hear about.

This blog was written by Beth Graham, our Associate Director of Quality, Research, and Training who has been with us for the last 11 years.

For additional information about how you can participate in Fire Prevention Week, visit NFPA’s FPW website, or email [email protected].

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