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December 02, 2010
NFPA Identifies Causes of Industrial and Manufacturing Structure Fires; Fireproof Your Facility

No employees were present when a fire broke out at the Naumes gourmet fruit-packing facility in Yuba County, north of Sacramento, on a Friday night this past June. Workers were out on a temporary layoff between the end of the Rainier cherry-packing season and the beginning of the pear-packing season.

Having no one on-site meant that the blaze burned for three hours before firefighters arrived to combat it, and the building—including the shipping dock, the office, the hand-packing lines for pears and persimmons, and all of the machinery, tools, and forklifts in the mechanic shop—was completely destroyed. More than 200 jobs were lost, at least until the facility can be rebuilt.

Unfortunately, such industrial and manufacturing structure fires aren't uncommon.

The Cost and Origins of Structure Fires

Each year from 2003 to 2006, an average of 10,500 structure fires were reported in industrial and manufacturing structures in the United States. These fires caused 12 deaths, 300 injuries, and more than $500 million in direct property damage annually, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Fifteen percent of these fires began in the manufacturing area or workroom, more than any other single location; another six percent began in machinery rooms or areas.

Practice Tip

For a fire to start, it must have a fuel source, an ignition source, and an oxygen source. Common ignition sources in the workplace include sparks, open flames, and hot equipment.

Fingering the Fuels

The NFPA has identified the four items most likely to be the first things ignited in industrial and manufacturing facility fires—information you can use to prioritize and control potential fire hazards in your facility. Fires in industrial and manufacturing facilities most frequently begin with:

Trash or waste. Those piles of discarded paper and cardboard near the loading dock or in the corner of the warehouse may seem like a problem that can wait, but 11 percent of industrial and manufacturing facility fires find their initial fuel in just such caches. To prevent this type of fire, don't let combustible garbage accumulate in your facility. In other words, take out the trash.

Dust, fiber, lint, sawdust, or excelsior. Have you ever started a campfire? Think about what's easier to light: a big log or a handful of dry leaves? The more finely a combustible material is divided, the more readily it ignites, and finely divided materials like dust and lint are the starters for 10 percent of industrial and manufacturing facility fires. These materials are not usually a facility's product; rather, they are a byproduct of production activities (producing wood products creates sawdust and excelsior, or curly wood shavings; producing cloth or cloth products creates fiber and lint).

To prevent this type of fire, identify sources of finely divided combustible materials in your facility and don't let them accumulate. Pay special attention to finely divided combustibles that may accumulate where they cannot be seen, such as above dropped ceilings or inside ventilation systems.

Flammable or combustible liquid or gas. Flammable or combustible liquids or gases, like finely divided combustibles, are the initial fuel source for 10 percent of industrial and manufacturing facility fires.

For example, a small spill—less than a gallon of methane—ignited outside the American Fuels Biodiesel Facility in Bakersfield in 2006. The ignition source might have been static electricity, or it could have been sparks produced by aluminum bars on the frame of a methanol transport tote when it was dropped just outside the plant. The fire flashed back to the 250-gallon tote and quickly spread from outside to inside. Workers at the facility, who had been trained in fire safety, shut down their operations and evacuated safely, but the facility was a total loss.

To prevent this type of fire, identify the type and quantity of flammable and combustible liquids and gases present in your facility. Prevention may be as simple as ensuring that all flammable liquids are placed in appropriate storage cans and stored in flammable chemical cabinets. It also may be more complicated, requiring installation of detectors for flammable gases, fire-suppression systems, and explosion-proof electrical wiring throughout your facility.

Electrical wire or cable insulation. Electrical wiring and cable insulation are the first items ignited in six percent of industrial and manufacturing facility fires. To prevent this type of fire, it is important to maintain the integrity of your facility's electrical wiring. You can do that by ensuring that your building's wiring is up to code, not overloading electrical circuits, and using quality repair and replacement parts.

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