Leadership: Anticipate Pushback on Space Heaters

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Hospital leaders should recognize that portable space heaters can become a trouble spot.

With the onset of chillier weather, it's inevitable that portable space heaters will begin to appear on patient care units and in offices.

Healthcare leaders need to ensure that staff is aware that The Joint Commission has taken a more restrictive view on their use than the 2000 edition of the Life Safety Code® (LSC).

In short, The Joint Commission bans space heaters at nurses' stations, a position that is bound to get pushback from the nursing staff.

"We don't want [space heaters] in nursing stations," says George Mills, FASHE, CHFM, CEM, senior engineer at The Joint Commission, who spoke during the American Society for Healthcare Engineering's (ASHE) annual conference in Anaheim, CA, in August.

Mills' big concerns about portable space heaters in nurses' stations include the following:

  • Nurses' stations tend to have a lot of paper in and around them, which could easily catch fire if the paper accidentally comes in contact with the heating element of the heater or the appliance tips over onto a stack of paper.
  • Staff members sometimes use extension cords with space heaters, which in a nurses' station could create a trip hazard and possibly an electrical hazard.

So leadership should be sure that the organization's space heater policies reflect The Joint Commission's thinking and that staff members have received education about how and where to use these items.

A maze of requirements
Space heater requirements can be confusing because you have LSC core requirements, an LSC exception, and The Joint Commission's interpretation all in play, says Peter Larrimer, PE, a safety and fire protection engineer at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The LSC generally prohibits space heaters in healthcare occupancies under paragraphs 18/19.7.8. However, an exception to those paragraphs allows the heaters if:

  • They are used in nonsleeping staff and employee areas.
  • The heating elements of the appliances don't exceed 212° F.

Meanwhile, under Joint Commission life safety standard LS.02.01.70, element of performance (EP) 3 requires hospitals to prohibit space heaters "within smoke compartments containing patients sleeping and treatment areas," which is a subtle difference from the LSC's wording. Nonetheless, EP 3 refers people to the exception under 18/19.7.8.

Exception doesn't work
Larrimer asked Mills at the ASHE conference whether The Joint Commission allows healthcare facilities to use the LSC's exception.

Yes, facilities can use the exception in most areas of the building, but in The Joint Commission's opinion, nurses' stations don't qualify for it, Mills said.

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