Achieving a Balanced Fire Protection Plan

Industrial manufacturing facilities can and should be ready for unexpected events.

JUST five years ago, in 2001, the fire incident log for industrial facilities in North America looked like this:

* March 1--Iron Range, Minn.: Fire destroyed a cabinet plant that was the community's second-largest employer.
* March 2--Calgary, Alberta: A worker leaped to safety with his clothes aflame after an explosion at a wood processing plant.
* March 3--Greensboro, N.C.: An unused room at a packing plant was damaged by fire.
* March 3--Evans City, Pa.: High winds fanned a massive fire that destroyed the production building at a steel plant. Fifteen fire companies battled the blaze for two hours.
* March 6--Casper, Wyo.: A fire broke out at a tear gas manufacturing plant with four employees exposed to the gas.

These tragic stories--all within one week's time--illustrate the frequency of just one of the many hazards in industrial workplace settings that are associated with the use of electrically powered equipment and can have a dramatic affect on workers and other staff. Some of these potential hazards include: interference with equipment; accidental contact with a worker or other individual resulting in burns or serious eye or bodily injury; explosions; and fires. This article will specifically focus on the potential fire risks related to industrial manufacturing facilities. However, many of the recommended safety precautions in this article also will apply to other potential exposures.

One vital point of interest is that the power supply to any type of electrical equipment involved in a fire incident must be shut off prior to the application of any extinguishing agent. If this is not the case, safeguards designed into the equipment will be compromised, insulation may be breached, and the continued supply of electricity to the equipment will result in a possible reflash of the fire even after extinguishment appears to have been accomplished.

More than 17,000 fires occur in industrial settings such as manufacturing plants each year, resulting in huge property losses and loss of revenue. The reality is that the presence of a heat source combined with manufacturing equipment, chemicals, combustibles, and the likely presence of flammable vapors in direct proximity to workers and others presents a particularly significant level of potential risk. In seconds, a life-threatening situation can arise with little or no time to react. For these reasons, fire prevention efforts must receive primary consideration, followed by effective response procedures in the event of unanticipated incidents.

In this article we will review some facilities and the recommended fire equipment for extinguishing fires in them with the least amount of mess and cleanup, especially when food products, electronic equipment, and damageable textiles are involved, in an effort to minimize loss both from the fire damage and the downtime that results in lost productivity.

Industrial and Institutional Laundry Facilities
Historically, large laundry facilities have a problem with lint fires occurring in the drying process. These fires may occur within the ductwork, on filter faces, or behind the machines themselves. A strict regimen of prevention involving equipment maintenance and cleaning of filters and ductwork will help to keep such fires from occurring.

These fires can become "deep-seated" very quickly, and the use of a violent discharge extinguisher can spread the burning lint around. By choosing a more specialized extinguisher to protect this hazard, such as a water mist fire extinguisher, chances of spreading the fire are minimized, better penetration can be achieved, the wand helps access tight spaces, and less damage occurs during extinguishment.

Colleges, uniform services, prisons, hospitals, military facilities, large hotels, health care facilities, linen supply companies, and industrial laundries all have this same hazard. The water mist fire extinguisher offers a more efficient use of water that is incorporated into the design by using a finer droplet size and a wide, soft discharge pattern.

Electronic Manufacturing Plants
While traditional agents, such as ABC dry chemical, are certainly effective on fires occurring in electronic manufacturing facilities, other alternatives in fire extinguisher choice may serve the same purpose while requiring less cleanup after the incident. Plant managers and production designers should review their processes and ask questions involving different likely fire scenarios when making choices regarding the type of first response equipment they will have available for these specific hazards.

If a soft, controlled discharge of the agent is required in order to confine the damage to a specific, localized area, either CO2 extinguishers or water mist extinguishers may be more appropriate. If the manufacturing cannot tolerate water of any type, then alternative "clean" agents, such as halon alternatives, may be a more viable choice.

Traditionally, many large electronic manufacturers have placed pressurized water extinguishers that employ tap water and a straight stream next to a CO2 extinguisher, the concept being that the water extinguisher will be used exclusively for Class A (normal combustible) fires and the CO2 would be used for Class C (live electrical equipment) fires. With the advent of the water mist extinguisher, many of the traditional water extinguishers using a straight stream are replaced in these situations with the water mist extinguisher, affording an extra margin of safety for both the employees and the manufacturing process equipment.

Food Processing Environments
Cleanup can be critical to this particular process, and limiting contamination can be as much of a concern as the fire itself. As with electronic manufacturing, production designers and supervisory personnel should plan for likely fire scenarios and make selection of first response equipment based on limiting damage and downtime before, during, and after an incident.

Sanitation concerns are also important in this environment. Extinguisher selection should include equipment that is easy to keep clean. With recent concerns involving food safety, it is important that plant personnel check with extinguisher manufacturers regarding the appropriate equipment to use and the proper materials used to clean the equipment. Some cleaning solutions may attack different materials, resulting in premature damage and replacement of first response devices.

Care also should be taken to ensure the extinguishing agent being used will remain within the immediate area of the fire and will not affect food products in adjacent areas. A soft discharge pattern may be of greater use in this situation, and the use of traditional agents, such as ABC dry chemical, will be effective on the fire. However, they may cause problems with cleanup and destruction of product after the incident.

Textile Manufacturing Facilities
Textile processes may involve fires occurring from Class A material gathering in the process equipment and being exposed to friction. As with industrial laundry facilities, a diligent schedule of cleaning and good housekeeping practices is critical to the prevention of these fires. Should a fire occur, the water mist extinguisher has been found to be particularly effective because of its capability to penetrate the Class A material and the ease with which the agent can be applied to a vertical or even inverted surface with a soft discharge pattern.

Recommended Fire Safety Program Features
It is recommended that every manufacturing facility have an Electrical Safety Program to prevent one of these life-threatening situations, in which there is little or no time to react. When developing a program to promote the safe use of all manufacturing equipment and the facilities, the following strategies are recommended:

* Evaluate equipment purchases carefully and completely. Select equipment based on compatibility with specific organizational needs. Involve representatives of the operational staff, management, materials management, and engineering services in this process. Ensure the equipment to be purchased will function effectively in the appropriate setting and can be fully serviceable.
* Operate facilities in accordance with the manufacturers' specifications. Obtain a complete set of operating manuals for each type of device. Develop and attach the manufacturer's operating instructions to each unit.
* Require that a factory-authorized representative provide advance training to personnel before placing any new equipment into service. Ensure that such training extends to part-time and/or "off-shift" employees. Maintain detailed records of such training sessions.

Within this advance training, establish operational guidelines for the use of each type of equipment. Address the following aspects:

1) The pertinent applications, procedures, contraindications, or specific precautions;
2) Preventive maintenance schedules and procedures, including a formal lockout/tagout program;
3) Equipment cleaning and regular inspection or "check out" procedures;
4) Inspection schedules, testing or service requirements; and
5) Emergency response procedures in the event of an unwanted incident.

* Train all personnel in accordance with the operating guidelines. This includes all workers using or coming in contact with operations and/or operating equipment. Employees who service the equipment also need to know how to identify whether equipment is intact and functioning properly.
* Select and install appropriate emergency response equipment in all work areas. This should include one or more fire extinguishers of a suitable type in each room and area of the plant or facility. These extinguishers must be installed so the employees have unobstructed access during an emergency.

When selecting a fire extinguisher, consideration must be given to the effect each form of extinguisher discharge will have on controlling the fire, the products being manufactured at hand, and the operating environment. For example, dry chemical extinguishers are effective but produce a large amount of residue that could contaminate a large amount of food products within a food processing plant. Carbon dioxide and other clean agent extinguishers do not produce a residue but can cause respiratory complications for workers involved. They also have little or no rating to extinguish Class A fires (ordinary combustibles).

A new water mist extinguisher shows promise for use in many industrial environments. This extinguisher possesses a Class A and Class C (2A:C) rating, making it suitable for use on ordinary combustibles and fires involving energized electrical equipment. The fine spray from the unique misting nozzle provides safety from electrical shock, enhances cooling and soaking characteristics of the agent, and reduces scattering of the burning materials. The de-ionized water agent is non-toxic, leaves no powder residue, and is not a respiratory threat. The unit also is easy to clean because it is covered with antiseptic white paint finish.

Achieving Balanced Fire Protection
To ensure quick response to fire, business, building owners, and workers need to be certain that a complete and balanced approach to fire protection exists in their workplace to provide occupants and others with the tools to defend in place against a fire, once the fire department has been called and everyone is safe.

A balanced fire protection plan is made up of several components, many of which are discussed in this article. These life safety devices include fire extinguishers, standpipe fire hose stations, smoke/fire alarms, exit signs and emergency lighting, and sprinkler and fire suppression systems. All these components must be in place and well maintained to make a difference in case of fire.

Fire protection equipment is legislated by city, state, and federal laws, many of them directly adopted or adapted from model code-making organizations, such as the International Code Council and the National Fire Protection Association. Building owners must comply with the fire codes of their area; however, considering the history of fires and the potential severity of future ones, they may want to evaluate their balanced fire protection plan and exceed the requirements of local codes for added protection. Businesses, too, should become advocates for their employees' safety by urging building owners to go above and beyond local requirements for extra precautionary measures. A balanced fire protection plan is the first line of defense against fire. Small fires in the beginning stage can be suppressed with portable fire extinguishers or water hose lines connected to building standpipes. Even if the occupants are unable to extinguish the fire, they are able to gain time and protect the exit way in order to evacuate or defend in place, while waiting for the fire department to respond.

Here are some facts to consider. When fires are extinguished in the early stages:

* Loss of life is minimal. Ninety-three percent of all fire-related deaths occur once the fire has progressed beyond the early stages.
* Direct property damage is minimal. Ninety-five percent of all direct property damage occurs once the fire has progressed beyond the early stages.

The fire probability of a manufacturing facility can be common, and the level of injury to workers and others involved in such a fire can be catastrophic. This article has outlined a range of resources that offer guidance in this area, as well as pertinent safety practices.

Lastly, reinforce the importance of prevention, prevention, prevention to all workers on a continuous basis, but be ready to respond to the unexpected event.

This article appeared in the February 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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