Prevention of Industrial Fires

By Isaac Mwangi | Tuesday Feb 6, 2018

Fires and explosions needlessly kill and injure employees and damage billions of dollars worth of property and goods every year. Here are steps you can take to keep your business from going up in smoke.

A host of factors -- building design and materials, machinery, wiring, fire supression systems, emergency response programs, alarm systems, inspection and testing of fire response equipment and systems, chemicals on site, training, housekeeping, end products -- can work alone or combine to impact on fire resistance and prevention. But there are a number of ways to avoid courting disaster.

Protection and Prevention

Protection ensures that a minor event such as a small containable fire in a trash can does not turn into a catastrophic event which can devastate a business, the lives of workers and a community. Prevention ensures that the trash can fire does not ignite in the first place.

Experts focus on several aspects of prevention -- good housekeeping, good work habits, employee training and workplace inspection -- as ways to avoid minor events and major catastrophes. Majority of fires and property damage could be avoided through preventive maintenance and frequent inspection and testing of equipment and electrical systems; taking proper safety precautions during maintenance operations; and using caution around open flames.

Building in Fire Safety

In addition to planning fire safety into the design of new facilities and processes, experts suggest a close evaluation of the materials used to construct new buildings and/or maintain older ones. Determining the fire protection factors for buildings and materials can seem daunting, but many business insurers are willing to advise their clients about fire prevention and protection.

Below is a list of questions that safety professionals, building engineers and emergency response personnel need to be able to answer about their workplace:

  • What are the structural building materials?
  • Are the walls, ceilings and floors, furniture, floor coverings and window treatments fire-resistant?
  • Do they meet or exceed current industry standards, as well as National building codes?
  • Are the fire suppression systems adequate to meet the needs of the facility and the potential hazards?
  • Is the local water supply adequate to meet the needs of the sprinkler system and emergency responders?
  • Are there adequate, properly marked emergency exits?
  • Are there fire walls and doors to prevent or slow the spread of fire from one area to the next?

Other suggestions include: surveying employees to make sure they know what to do in case of fire; having a yearly training session which includes employees and emergency responders from the facility and community; asking contractors about their loss control practices and using contractors who have demonstrated safe work practices; and not only inspecting sprinklers and alarms weekly, but also testing them on a regular basis.

Alarm systems should be hooked up to emergency generators as well as the central power source. It's not inconceivable that in a fire or other emergency situation, the main electrical system would shut down.

It is also important to use extreme caution when conducting maintenance operations which involve drilling holes in ceilings and floors. Any pipe chases which travel between floors must be properly sealed with a fire retardant material. Otherwise, they provide a perfect opportunity for a fire to jump from floor to floor and engulf an entire building.

Finally upper management need to be involved and proactive about fire safety. If management focuses attention and resources on fire prevention and proactive maintenance, employees will understand that fire safety, good maintenance and housekeeping are important parts of their jobs.

The True Cost of Fire

While no one wants to suffer through a fire, management might balk at some of the expenses associated with fire prevention and protection. The cost of emergency response drills, building scale models, providing employee training, purchasing state-of-the-art fire protection systems and materials for new buildings and retrofitting older buildings with fire suppression systems can be high. But experts agree that it is money well spent.

Corporations have had to relocate operations from burned-out facilities to other facilities rather than rebuild while others take insurance payments and rebuild in other cities or states where the costs of doing business are lower. Companies with only one facility could go out of business because between the lost business and production downtime and the amount of the loss which they couldn't recover through insurance, they couldn't afford to rebuild. Plus, mortgage bills and tax bills keep coming in, even when production is stopped.

COST-SAVING WAYS TO SAVE LIVES

Not all fire prevention strategies involve expensive equipment or extensive remodelling. One of the least expensive and most effective ways to prevent fires is through good housekeeping techniques. According to experts, as many as 90 percent of all fires are caused or fueled by unneeded combustibles. 

Combustibles can include oil-soaked rags and trash, extra packing boxes stored in the wrong place - close to ignition sources, chemicals stored near work areas instead of in flame- and explosion-resistant drums and cabinets, bottles of alcohol stored on every desk in a cleanroom etc.

While it is easier to store bottles of cleaners and chemicals close to work sites, it is a dangerous practice. It is also dangerous to store containers of flammable, reactive and explosive chemicals in shipping cartons, unless the containers or cartons are flame-resistant. 

To cut down on costs, it is recommended that extra inventory of flammables be kept at a minimum. Less storage space is needed and potential fuel sources for a fire are decreased.

Other suggestions include:

  • Clean up oil and chemical spills immediately, and keep work areas free of any extra paper, boxes or rags.
  • Don't string electrical cords across floors or walkways where they can be stepped on and frayed, opening your facility up to the possibility of an electrical fire.
  • De-energize machinery before any maintenance work is started and thoroughly inspect that equipment before the power is turned back on.
  • Keep tools which cause friction or sparks away from areas where explosive and flammable materials are present.
  • If temporary scaffolding or partitions are erected, make sure they are metal or made with materials treated with flame retardants.
  • Use a temporary sprinkler system in areas where hot work is being conducted or for areas being used to temporarily store flammable materials.
  • Train employees in the various sounds made by the alarm system and what action they need to take when an alarm sounds.
  • Invite outside emergency responders into the facility and educate them about hazards. Have an emergency plan in place and conduct a full-fledged emergency response drill at least once a year.
  • Routinely inspect and test fire extinguishers and check that all exit and direction signs provide correct information, are in place and are well-lit even during a power outage.

HOT WORK

Hot work is the cause of hundreds of industrial fires annually. Most are quickly contained. Some fires snuff themselves out before employees even know they occurred, while others destroy facilities and ruin lives.

Any time a maintenance operation involving cutting, grinding or welding is undertaken, it is recommended that a step-by-step review of the process be conducted. First, look for alternatives. Does a joint have to be welded or can it be bolted? Does a bolt have to be drilled out or can it be cut off using hydraulic shears?

If alternatives do not exist, take the operation to another area whenever possible, one which is outside the facility or in an isolated area away from fuel sources and employees.

If the operation cannot be moved, don't allow the process to be conducted until a permit is issued which verifies that the location of the work has been properly prepared.

Preparation for hot work is extensive. A 10 metre distance is recommended between the hot work and combustibles. Anything which cannot be moved should be covered with a welding tarp. If the work is being conducted in a building made of materials which can burn, then the walls, floors and possibly ceilings in the area need to be covered or treated with flame retardants.

Check that pipe chases are properly sealed so that sparks cannot fall between floors and ceilings or back in walls. Many types of dust can burn or explode; eliminate or clean dust hazards before beginning hot work. If the work is conducted in a room with an operation involving flammable liquids, remove any containers of flammables and purge all equipment of traces of flammable liquid.

Once the hot work is completed, there is need to make sure that no flammables are brought back into the area. You should also check that the area remains closed off until the threat of a stray spark or flame has passed. 

If the work is conducted by an outside contractor, an employee should be assigned to be a fire watch. An outside contractor might be very competent in his line of work, but not very knowledgeable about fire protection and hazards at the facility. The contractor might have different priorities and might just think that it's costing him money to have one of his people stand watch rather than work on another job. 

EMPLOYEE FIRE TRAINING

In the event of fire, response needs to be safe and speedy. Employees should be trained to do the following:

  • Count the number of doors, machines or desks between their work areas and the nearest exit. During a fire, they might need to find their way out in the dark.
  • Learn the location of alternative exits from all work areas.
  • Know the location of the nearest fire alarm and learn how to use it.
  • Post emergency phone numbers on or near all phones.
  • Be sure that someone in authority knows about any disability that could delay an escape and makes plans for a safe evacuation.

Employers should also:

  • Post building evacuation plans and discuss them during new-employee orientations.
  • Conduct regular fire drills.
  • Include disabled employees in the fire emergency planning process.
  • Train designated employees in the use of portable fire extinguishers and designate employees who will help evacuate fire scenes.

It is also important to engage experts for regular fire safety audits not only to meet the legal requirements of the Occupational health and safety Services and Fire Risk Reduction Rules 2007, but also to ensure that the workplaces are made and sustained in conditions that are safe for human habitation and with proper fire prevention/protection measures taken.

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