Space heaters are common in the workplace during cold temperatures, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily safe. Although space heaters are simple, they do require intentionality. Properly used, a space heater will keep an employee warm at their desk or in a conference room. However, improperly used space heaters can cause a fire or electric shock. In some cases, they can produce carbon monoxide.
Because of the danger space heaters pose, many employers specifically ban them from the office. This doesn’t go over well with employees who just want to stay warm. On the other hand, some employers allow space heaters as long as employees abide by specific guidelines.
Guidelines for space heater safety in the workplace
If you’re an employer, consider allowing your team members to use space heaters in the office, provided they follow these safety guidelines:
1. Require each unit to be approved
If you’re going to allow space heaters in the office, require every unit to be approved prior to use. You can’t control every aspect of how they’re used, but you can eliminate dangerous units this way.
There are so many different space heaters for office cubicles on the market made by a variety of brands. Not all brands have a good reputation, not all units are safe, and some aren’t suitable to be used on or under a desk.
2. Create a list of approved units
Researching each space heater an employee wants to use in order to approve it is a cumbersome task. To make the approval process easier, come up with a list of approved space heaters that employees can purchase either locally or online. Or, offer to buy the heaters to maintain complete control over the units.
Space heaters for office cubicles can be difficult to find if each person’s space is small and/or they have a lot of tech on their desks. If you want to leave it somewhat open, require units that have been tested by a nationally recognized testing facility, like Intertek (ETL), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). As long as a space heater has been cleared for safe use by one of these organizations, it’s allowed.
However, be sure to only allow electric space heaters—you don’t want anyone burning propane, gas, or wood in your office. This will create carbon monoxide and can be deadly.
3. Require turning the heater off when leaving their desk
Never allow space heaters to run unattended. Require all employees to be present while their heaters are in use and turn them off when they walk away.
You don’t want your employees putting anything in front of their space heater and walking away from their desk. A fire can start whether they’re present or not, but at least if anything goes wrong, you want the employee to be there to intervene.
It’s also wise to require space heaters to be unplugged at the end of the day. Plugged-in appliances still draw power from the outlet even when turned off and can be a fire hazard.
4. Require proper space clearance
One safety rule people find difficult to adhere to is the proper clearance required around space heaters. Each unit should have 36” of clearance on all sides for air to flow in and out.
Most space heaters suck in air from the back and need decent clearance for that process. However, it’s most important to have sufficient clearance in the front where the heat comes out of the unit. Heat from a space heater is capable of starting a fire by blowing on something highly flammable given enough time.
Avoid Space Heaters Entirely
Simple HVAC maintenance can go a long way in improving your building’s heating capabilities. Learn more about HVAC maintenance below!
5. Prohibit extension cords
In your policy, you should strictly ban employees from plugging space heaters into extension cords and power strips. Require that all space heaters be plugged directly into a wall outlet. Using extension cords and power strips to run a heater can overheat and cause a fire. On average, space heaters operate on 1500 watts, which can make an extension cord extremely hot.
In addition to requiring space heaters to be plugged directly into an outlet, make sure employees know not to use units that have frayed cords and damaged plugs. Although it may not seem like it, electrical tape is not a permanent solution to a frayed cord, and most people don’t know how to use electrical tape properly.
6. Verify proper placement
Once your employees have an approved space heater, it’s important to make sure they put it in the right place. Generally, they should keep the space heater on top of their desk if there’s room. Never allow space heaters or cords in the middle of walkways where they can be a trip hazard.
7. Make sure heaters don’t share the same outlet
It’s critical to ensure that employees don’t plug multiple space heaters into the same outlet, as this can cause the outlet to overheat, melt, or possibly start a fire. Hopefully your employees have individual outlets at their desks and don’t need to share.
The other thing to consider is what outlets are controlled by which breakers and how much of a load they can handle. You may not be able to run two 1500-watt heaters on the same breaker without tripping the breaker. It all depends on what the breaker is wired to handle.
Take space heater safety seriously
Space heater safety in the workplace is more important than many people think. If you can’t keep your office warm enough in the winter, your employees are going to turn to space heaters. It’s up to you if you want to allow them or not.
Take space heater safety seriously, but don’t deprive your employees. There is a good compromise when you create a safety policy for all to follow. It’s not necessarily about the unit people use, but how they use it, that makes it safe. The safest space heater for an office is one that is tested and attended at all times when in use.