Beware of portable electric space heaters in LTC

While prohibited in smoke compartments where residents are present in skilled nursing facilities, portable electric space heaters continue to find their way into long-term care facilities of all types. SNFs, as well as other healthcare facilities—including hospitals that are required to comply with NFPA #101, The Life Safety Code (2000 edition) in accordance with CMS regulations—should be familiar with this section of the code:

18.7.8 (New) and 19.7.8 (Existing) – Portable Space Heating Devices

Portable space heating-devices shall be prohibited in all healthcare occupancies.

Exception: Portable space heating devices shall be permitted to be used in non-sleeping staff and employee areas where the heating elements of the such devices do not exceed 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius).

In essence, certain types of portable space heaters with the limitations cited in the above code sections are allowed in healthcare occupancies providing that they are not in the same smoke compartment where people sleep (both residents and staff). Considering the physical plant design features of most nursing homes, there are very few areas of a nursing home where a portable space heater could be utilized.

Even with these prohibitions, life safety surveyors, local fire inspectors, insurance company loss control representatives and the like continue to find these potentially dangerous devices in operation in prohibited areas on a regular basis. In particular, facilities located in areas that do not commonly have cold weather may consider using portable electric space heaters to provide additional heating resource. For example, the Phoenix, Ariz. area is presently experiencing a significant cold-snap where most buildings are not designed for unusually cold weather conditions.

My fear is that LTC providers of all types will allow the use of electric space heaters in direct violation of the code and more importantly create a hazardous condition that could lead to a fire.  Each year, hundreds of people die in fires caused by heating equipment, including portable space heaters, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

In LTC facilities that are not required to specifically comply with requirements of the Life Safety Code, there are likely similar state regulations or local codes prohibiting the use of portable electric space heaters in a similar capacity.

If space heaters are utilized in a compliant manner, here is one thing to remember: Space heaters need space. They should only be used in accordance with manufacturer’s guidelines. Emphasis should be made on providing adequate clearance areas around space heaters that is free and clear of any combustible material.

Here are a couple of questions to ponder: Why do you need a space heater in the first place? Are there problems or deficiencies with your facility’s heating plant or levels of building insulation that can be repaired or improved to eliminate the need for this type of alternate heating source?

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