What to Know Before Using a Space Heater in an Office

Anyone who has worked in an office understands that controlling the ambient temperature so that everyone is comfortable is nearly impossible. Some will complain during the heat of summer that the AC is freezing them out, while others are opening windows in the middle of January because they are too hot. It literally is a case of not being able to please everyone all of the time. In this article, I will address a very common scenario found in offices and workplaces throughout the country. Space heaters. You know, those small square units that people tuck beneath their desks in an effort to keep from freezing to death. While handy and convenient they also pose a number of concerns for business/building owners, and facility managers.

Cords cords everywhere!

Do not allow your staff to use extension cords to power their individual space heaters!

The misuse of extension cords has contributed to an increasing number of electrical fires in Ontario. Do not become a statistic! The Electrical Safety Authority warns consumers to use extension cords safely. Only use extension cords for temporary installations: Flexible extension cords must never take the place of permanent wiring; they are not designed, or intended for permanent installations. Failure to use and maintain extension cords in the manner they were intended may create a fire or shock hazard. Furthermore, the overuse of extension cords can create a trip and fall hazard. We recommend that you hire an electrician to evaluate the electrical needs of your office to ensure that, whatever measures are employed, will meet proper electrical standards for safety, and effectiveness.

Employer to supply heaters

Do not allow your staff to bring in their own heaters, or any other electrical appliances, for that matter. If it is determined that the use of portable heaters is the most effective and safest alternative to a properly balanced central heating system then the units should be supplied by management. This will ensure that the units are up to date and properly maintained. Only heaters that meet current CSA/ULC standards should be used. If employees are allowed to bring in their own appliances you will soon find you have a hodge-podge of older, and possibly dangerous units scattered around the office, or warehouse (think flea market bargains, and you get the picture).

Insurance concerns

A properly worded All Risks property policy does not exclude fire damage caused by the use portable heaters; however, their use may still cause headaches for building owners. If you are the owner or manager of a commercial building you may be familiar with the loss control inspection process. This is where your insurer sends a loss control expert to your premises to evaluate the property on behalf of the company. The overuse of portable heaters (especially when used in conjunction with extension cords) will raise red flags with your insurance company, and could lead to higher premiums, or worse the cancellation of your coverage! There is a good reason why insurers do not like portable heaters…they cause fires! We recommend that you discuss the use of space heaters with your insurance broker prior to installation.

What is the real problem!

[Warning: trekkie geek-out coming up] If you find that the portable heaters in your office are multiplying like tribbles this may be a sign of a larger problem. A properly balanced central heating system is designed to deliver heating and cooling as and where needed. As soon as individuals begin taking matters into their own hands it will invariably throw the whole system out of whack. It is not unheard for a building’s AC to switch on in the dead of winter because someone started using a portable heater too close to a thermostat. Suddenly, employees in an entirely different part of the building are receiving chilled instead of warm air. Other than causing discomfort for everyone, it also increases the overall heating and cooling costs of running the building. We recommend engaging a qualified heating and air-conditioning contractor to evaluate and balance the system on an annual basis.

Turn it off!

Often, it is the simplest things which when over-looked cause the biggest headaches. We recommend tasking at least one, or better yet two employees with the responsibility to check all portable appliances at the end of each work day to ensure they have been switched off. Insurance or no insurance, the last thing you need is a disruption in your business just because someone forgot to unplug their heater resulting in a fire!

As the temperatures drop, don’t be left out in the cold by ignoring the fire risk associated with the overuse of portable space heaters. Take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of your employees AND your business!

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