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Mitch Matlow / Howard Cohen

Fire safety is common sense

Mar 6, 2008

Mitch Matlow / Howard Cohen

Mitch Matlow / Howard Cohen

Safety in the shop includes taking proper precautions to avoid fire. Mitch Matlow from the San Jose Fire Department gave a presentation on safety in the shop.

Mitch Matlow from the San Jose Fire Department gave a presentation on how to protect your shop from fire hazards.


Mitch Matlow has worked in the fire district for 10 years, before that he was a paramedic for 22 years. He is currently a Fire Inspector for permitted businesses. Because we are in a home, permits are not required. His talk will cover code for our shops and what we can do to make it safer. Rich’s shop could not be permitted where is sits now. Mitch is talking about the hobbyist shop. As he covered various points, Mitch used Rich’s shop to illustrate some of the points he was making. 

Fire safety is common sense. He showed an example of a Boston fire at a hobbyist shop. Mitch then described sources of ignition: smoking, electrical, hot tools, sparks, spontaneous ignition, other? 

Rich’s shop is pretty good from an electrical standpoint. However multi-plug adaptors are not up to code in a business without (i) a built-in circuit breaker and (ii) the adaptor must be over current protected. 

Circuit breakers are supposed to be labeled. This helps a fire crew know what needs to be turned off. It also could help us in the case where someone is in trouble. A cover plate on a sub panel is required. 

He warned us about hot tools, even a heater. The danger is that vapors could be ignited. Spraying requires a booth. Spray cans are ok. Mitch talked about spontaneous combustion from, e.g. linseed oil or any vegetable oil such as tung oil or Danish oil. If the material is from rock, spontaneous combustion is less likely. Important. We can turn in hazardous rags by calling the following number: 299-7300 

We should keep oily rags in a metal can with a tight fitting lid or a listed non-metallic (UL listing) container. For us, it probably most cost effect to just buy just a steel garbage can at your favorite local hardware store. You can never just throw rags away. You can reuse a rag, but when it is not useful any longer you are supposed to call (see phone number above) for disposal. The code says you have 90 days to get rid of these materials. Non-compatible chemicals have to be separated by 20 feet. Materials safety data sheets (MSDS) for each product explain about compatibility dangers. E.g. Bleach and Windex are incompatible. 

We need to keep our shop clean. The Fire Captain in attendance mentioned we might want to consider if our insurance companies could hold us to commercial code. They (the Fire Department) do not enforce in an r3 (basically residential) building but if there were a complaint they are authorized to inspect and cite. We cannot really request an inspection. 

We must have a fire extinguisher. There are a number of categories: A, B (flammable liquids), C (electrical), D (flammable metals) & K (deep fat fryers), which are not likely in a hobbyist shop. Basically we should have an ABC rated extinguisher in our wood turner shop; the minimum for our shop is 2A. The consideration for us is weight. A rule of thumb is the following: If a fire is larger than your extinguisher, the only use it to safely get out of danger. A fire extinguished should be serviced annually. There are companies that will service them in the yellow pages. Mitch suggested that call some of these companies and see if they would give us a deal on service if we all brought our extinguishers to a meeting in one location. Service of an extinguished involved draining the gas, removing the powder and replacing with fresh powder, and replacing the seals. Every 5 years a service to pressure test the metal canister itself is required. A pressure of 195# per sq inch is required. Note: It is not allowed to service an extinguisher with plastic parts; hence you might want to pay slightly more for a unit with metal handle. The cost is roughly $10 - $20 for service vs. $50 for a new one (I bought one at Home Depot for under $40). A Halon gas extinguisher is now illegal and we do not want one in our woodshop. For our shops, one extinguisher is fine. A nice to have is an extinguisher by each exit door. The top of the fire extinguisher should be 3-5 feet above the floor. 

Hazardous materials, e.g. flammable liquid, needs secondary containment once opened. 

For us, this containment can be as simple as a throwaway kitchen pan. Furthermore a lid is not required. The secondary container must be below 6 feet. Also, in theory, if we have more than 5 gallons of open containers, then we need a permit for the secondary container. This is a problem because (i) we do not get inspected and (ii) the permitted secondary containers are expensive. Mitch recommended to get below 5 gallons of open containers. If a container is bone empty, it can go into recycling, but never into our garbage and, hence, into landfill. If you have a spill you can buy kitty litter (Johnny cat) and use it to absorb the hazardous material. If this happens, put the material into a tight fitting lid and call the phone number above. If we spill over 1 gallon of hazardous materials, don’t try to clean it up but instead call the fire department. It helps the fire department if we label all our containers. A metal container is better. 


On Rich’s dust collection system, the Pvc pipe must have a ground wire. Also in Rich’s shop, one cannot daisy chain power strips. I addition, we should always use over current protected adaptors. For more information go to 

If we are building a new shop or remodeling, e.g., Mitch recommends (he was an electrician at one time) that we make every receptacle a GFI unit. Having better convenience offsets the slightly extra cost.

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