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What is Your Plant’s Fire Risk? Simple Ways to Reduce Your Fire Hazards
Use this quick checklist to ensure that your company has a basic fire prevention policy in place.

By DeAnna Stephens
Date Posted: 6/1/2010

            Fire safety standards of wooden pallets have received a lot of media attention lately, due to the wood vs. plastic debate. Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS) has released multiple press releases highlighting fires that occurred at different wood pallet manufacturing locations over the past several months.

            Bob Moore, chairman and CEO of iGPS, said, “Wood pallet fires are occurring on a regular basis all across the country. They threaten lives, destroy property and cost millions in taxpayer dollars to contain.”

            The fact is that with the large number of pallet facilities and warehouses around the country, the problem could be a lot worse. But a combination of factors including preventative measures taken by the industry indicate that pallet-related fires may not be as big of a problem as iGPS suggests. But that doesn’t give the industry license to ignore any potential dangers.

            Regardless of the material involved, all types of pallets pose serous fire risk due to inerrant design of pallets providing maximum airflow.  Anyone who has been through a pallet-related fire knows how quickly it can spread especially if proper prevention techniques have not been deployed in advance.

            Do you know how to spot the fire risks in your pallet manufacturing facility? More importantly, do you know some of the basic practices you can employ to keep your company out of the media spotlight for something as disastrous as a fire? 

            The following is an overview of some of the simple ways that you can reduce your company’s risk of a catastrophic fire.

 

Housekeeping

            Kurt Ruchala, principal engineer at FirePro, a fire protection engineering firm, said that when it comes to fire safety in wood manufacturing, “Housekeeping is the biggest thing.” The most important part of housekeeping deals with wood dust accumulation.

            Wood waste buildup inside of plant buildings should be avoided at all costs. This includes waste material that falls under machines or on equipment and combustible wood dust on any and all surfaces. Cleaning wood dust requires special attention. It is so pervasive that residual dust often gathers high in the room or even in duct work, where it can remain unnoticed for quite some time, Kurt said. Out of sight should not mean out of mind. The importance of cleaning and removing wood dust accumulations cannot be overstressed.

            In 2006, a Chemical Safety Hazard Investigation Board report found that almost 300 dust fires and explosions had occurred in U.S. industrial facilities over the last 25 years – resulting in over 700 injuries and more than 100 fatalities.

            Remember that the method of cleaning wood dust is important as well. While it may seem like an easy answer to the problem, using compressed air to remove wood dust violates Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and can create dust clouds that result in an explosion if an ignition source is present.

            Another important part of housekeeping takes place outdoors. Keeping woods and brush cleared in pallet yards will lessen the possibility of any fire that starts outdoors spreading to buildings. Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company (PLMIC) recommends cutting and removing all brush and weeds within a minimum of 20 feet of all buildings.

 

Smoking

            Plain common sense indicates the dangers that exist when smoldering cigarette butts are combined with a pile of dry wood product. “Careless and uncontrolled smoking is responsible for many building fires and sadly is an exposure that can be easily identified and controlled,” stated PLMIC.

            All pallet companies should enforce a strict policy on smoking. It should be allowed only in designated areas located away from all pallet or other wood storage. “No Smoking” signs should be posted prominently throughout the plant. All designated smoking areas should be equipped with butt receptacles that employees should use at all times. Dropping or flicking away a smoldering cigarette butt should never be allowed in a pallet plant or on the yard. This is such a serious issue that PLMIC even suggests using disciplinary action, including discharge, for employees who do not abide by the smoking policies. Make sure your employees understand that you are not trying to restrict their freedoms; rather, you are trying to protect their (and your) livelihood.

 

Storage

            A stack of pallets is basically a built-in chimney, making pallet storage practices critical to reducing fire risks. Allied Insurance provides a checklist for idle pallet storage, but most of it requires nothing more than a little common sense. 

            Piles of pallets should be stable and orderly to reduce the chances of a burning pile from falling onto another pile and igniting it as well. Pallet storage should be kept separate from tanks of compressed gas or propane and located away from structural supports. Pallets stored outdoors should be kept away from buildings.

            Allied recommends at least 30 feet of clearance for up to 200 pallets and at least 50 feet when storing over 200 pallets. Piles of pallets stored indoors should be stacked no higher than six feet on the floor. Even when racking, there should always be at least 18 inches of clearance space between the top of the pallet pile and the heads of a sprinkler system. Also, make sure that no pallets are blocking aisles or exits in case of an emergency.

           

Sprinklers, Smoke Alarms and Simple Safety

            The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requires an Early Suppression Fast Response (ESFR) sprinkler system for rack storage. However, the exact sprinkler system requirements for pallet companies vary based on the specifications of each plant and the fire codes adopted by each local jurisdiction. Because fire codes can be complex and difficult to understand and apply, hiring a fire safety engineer to design a fire suppression system for your plant is worth considering. 

            Any smoke alarms in the plant should be tested once a year and have the battery changed if it is not hardwired. Often, plants will not be required to have smoke alarms in the manufacturing areas as wood dust in the air could cause frequent false alarms. But don’t forget any alarms in the offices or other areas. Smoke alarm codes vary from one location to another. Thus, it is smart to speak with your local building inspection office to check for compliance with local requirements for your plant.

            The most simple of fire safety measures is to have plenty of fire extinguishers on hand. Employers should ensure that fire extinguishers are located in easily accessible areas throughout the plant, especially near more fire prone areas. Also, make sure the extinguishers are always in working order.

 

Electrical Hazards

            Because of their ability to cause overheating or sparks that could ignite a fire, electrical hazards are one of the most dangerous threats in forest products manufacturing.

            “Electrical hazards result in numerous workplace fire incidents each year,” PLMIC said. “Defective electrical equipment or misuse of equipment can result in overheating or arcing. These conditions lead to ignition in areas where combustible or flammable materials are present.”

            A visual inspection for electrical hazards should be part of the regular routine at the start of a workday. Specific issues that should be looked for include damaged or frayed wires or cables, missing covers or damage on panels, or using multi-plug strips designed for office equipment for tools or manufacturing equipment. Also beware of improper
use of extension cords, such as using one not rated for the equipment or tools being used. Other hazards include: plugging one cord into another or leaving extension cords plugged in when not
in use.

            Pallet and lumber companies should conduct regular fire safety inspections to look for hazards and ensure compliance with procedures. Hopefully, these guidelines will help you develop smarter fire prevention policies.

            A major fire can devastate your business, don’t be another sad statistic. Take proper precaution now to protect your business.

 

Fire Safety Checklist

• Are wood waste and residues kept cleaned up and removed?

• Are all brush and weeds kept cleared from around buildings?

• Do all employees know where smoking is and is not allowed?

• Do employees use cigarette butt receptacles to dispose of finished cigarettes?

• Are stored pallet piles kept neat and orderly?

• Are pallet stacks kept below the maximum height?

• Are all pallets stored outdoors far enough away from buildings?

• Is the sprinkler or fire suppression system the right kind for the plant?

• Have the smoke alarms been tested and the battery changed within the last year?

• Are fire extinguishers located throughout the plant in easy to access locations?

• Is all electrical equipment examined on a regular basis for damage?

• Is electrical equipment being used properly?








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