Manufacturing facilities are highly vulnerable to fire. Flammable materials, multiple sources of ignition and malfunctioning machinery parts can lead to disastrous fires for firms.
Tony Smith at fire detection solution provider FireVu, specialises in food, drinks, pharmaceuticals and chemicals manufacturing. Tony discusses the causes and how manufacturing firms can manage the threat effectively.
Manufacturing fires cannot be eliminated.
Highly combustible substances are generally present in the process materials used as well as the product itself. Thousands of litres of flammable oil, sprays and lubricants in close proximity with a malfunctioning bearing or the friction of a trapped part can lead to a catastrophic fire.
The results of manufacturing fires can often be fatal.
Yet, even when circumstance luckily avoids casualties, the damage to the firm can be drastic and irreversible.
In the case of Wessex Foods, which supplied meat products for 500 UK Burger King outlets, it is believed chemical cannisters (of several possible causes) most likely led to the fire in July 2010 that led to its permanent closure.
What is beyond dispute is that despite the best efforts of 100 firefighters, using 50 million litres of water, the plant could not be saved. The Lowestoft plant had to let all 150 workers go. The company was devastated.
As disastrous as the fire was, it could have been more catastrophic for Wessex Foods, the local community and nearby firms. Only luck and the emergency services ensured the disaster was contained to the facility.
The dangers inherent in manufacturing and processing
The sources of danger are as diverse as the manufacturing sector. The food processing industry’s danger points include:
- Ovens and conveyor belts driven by motors and pumps
- Flammable hydraulic fluids, which power conveyor belts.
- Dusts prone to combustion including: flour, custard powder, instant coffee, sugar, dried milk, potato powder and soup powder
- Finely sprayed oils, mixing with flammable solvents such as ethanol or sterilisation techniques such as high temperature drying or spraying with hydrogen peroxide solutions
- Flammable gas fuels for ovens, flammable liquids and vapours (spirit based flavourings and cooking/coating oils).
These are not small quantities. The fire at Windsor Foods in LA was fuelled by more than 4,000 gallons of highly flammable soy bean oil. However, smaller quantities do not mean that fire risk is significantly lessened.
Ignition energies vary with different substances and for similar materials with differing moisture content and particle size. Even a low energy static discharged from a synthetic fibre jumper can trigger an ignition.
The danger does not need to be impressed upon the health and safety professional, it is self-evident that appropriate measures must be in place.
The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 assesses workplace dangers for fire and explosion hazard identification, and methods of prevention or mitigation.
Fire detection technology
Early fire detection needs to have robust, resilient, effective and tailored solutions for the plants they protect.
Fires need to be addressed early, the danger is that blazes can quickly spread. Conveyor belts, for instance, often span multiple pieces of high value plants’ kit or pass between several rooms. The risk of a serious fire spreading with speed across an entire plant is ever present.
Technologies such as Visual Smoke Detection (VSD), Infrared (IR) and Aspirating Smoke Detectors (ASD) give manufacturers a wide range of options for detecting fire and protecting a business’ investments.
Each has their advantages and drawbacks: ASD can detect smoke before it is visible to the human eye, which is particularly valuable where a fire develops in obscured locations. Yet, the sensitivity to distinguish between smoke and dust in early stage fires can be compromised.
VSD can be particularly useful in monitoring large sites and overcomes smoke stratifying and not reaching detection equipment, which can be a real issue in voluminous spaces.
The DSEAR regulations acknowledge the dangers inherent in the manufacturing sector, give clear instructions and the hard penalties for failure to implement regulations.
The early fire detection solutions are there and while the fire danger persists, as it always will, then the benefits of tackling potentially catastrophic fires before they take hold are self-evident.
Constant vigilance and adherence to fire safety procedures and never being complacent is key to avoiding the fate of Wessex Foods and many others. Regulations are time consuming, fire detection is another expense, but the consequences of being negligent or even just an uncharacteristic oversight can be catastrophic.
The article was featured in June’s issue of Health and Safety Matters