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Keep Your People and Business Safe: Fire Prevention Starts with Strong Inspection and Compliance Procedures
Fire Safety: Catastrophic plant fires have become all too common in the pallet industry. By conducting a self-assessment and revisiting procedures, a pallet or lumber operation can reduce its fire hazard and possibly save money on insurance. Learn how to conduct a beneficial inspection of your facilities.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 3/3/2014

                The threat of plant fires is an ever present reality in forest products facilities, especially pallet operations and sawmills. Companies must remain vigilant and work to identify and reduce hazards. Good prevention starts with inspecting a facility to look for dangers and work to mitigate those areas so that plants are in compliance with local codes and follow best practices.

                Having adequate procedures and fire suppression capabilities in place is the responsibility of the company, its mangers, local fire code officials and even insurance carriers. You can use all of these resources to help reduce risks as well as independent consultants and fire safety experts. This article covers the most common areas of concern for pallet and lumber facilities and is intended to be a good starting point for companies to conduct self -assessments of existing policies, procedures and fire suppression technology and resources.

                One big reason to conduct your own self-assessment is that if your operation is unsafe compared to others in the industry, you are going to pay a lot more for fire coverage than your competition. Al Gutierrez of Robitaille Insurance Co., said, “If you don’t keep your place maintained, you are going to pay, and there is a limited number of insurance carriers that will underwrite the pallet industry.”

                According to Gutierrez, pallet companies pay about a 20-25% premium compared to other industrial sectors due to the high risk associated with the industry.

                John Swenby, president of Paltech Enterprises, operates a number of pallet plants throughout the Midwest including a facility that recently suffered a fire.  Swenby commented, “We are going to see some major increases in the cost of pallets. For starters, because of the higher costs of insurance and two because of everything else.”

                Others agree that making your plant as safe as possible will help reduce your risk and lower your insurance costs. So, let’s look at some specific areas that should be part of any self-assessment process.

                Free resources exist including inspectors from insurance carriers or local fire code officials to identify areas of concern. However, you should only invite these outsiders into your plant if you are willing to follow their guidance. You don’t really have a choice when it comes to fire inspections as required by law or to obtain coverage from insurance companies. But you do when conducting your self-assessments.

                There are a number of key areas that you must analyze. These include: the means of egress to allow people to exit or fire authorities to access your property and buildings;  fire protection systems—fire alarms that give early warning to inhabitants and fire suppression systems that control the fire in the early ignition stages; fuel-supply and ignition systems;  electrical systems and wiring; hazardous and flammable chemical storage; machinery and mechanical systems; pallet storage and storage of other materials that can significantly contribute to the fire load of the buildings; wood dust accumulation; and fire safety training and procedures.

                You may need to comply with a variety of requirements that are enforced by the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA), state fire marshals, local fire codes, insurance providers, etc. When conducting a self-assessment, you will need to inspect previous records to see areas where concerns have been raised in the past. Come prepared with a flashlight, a clipboard with inspection forms, a tape measure, safety equipment and a cell phone with a camera so that you can photograph any issues that you discover.

                Start at the exterior of the property and work inward. Look to see how close any flammable material is stacked to the property line. Local codes may vary on how close items can be stored to the property line. It can be useful to have markers placed on your yard to identify the appropriate storage areas. Notice where fire hydrants are located and make sure that fire fighters have access to these resources.

                Observe the exterior of the structure looking for items stored too close to buildings or other hazards. Ordinarily, inspections begin at the top of structures and work down although you can start the other way if you want as long as you follow some systematic approach. While on the roof, notice any adjacent structures and evaluate the potential for fire to spread from one to the other. You should also tour through all possible avenues for fire and smoke to spread so that you can identify conditions that might foster unnecessary fire risk. Look for breaches in corridor walls, a missing fire door on a stair tower, debris in hallways or connections between buildings, and openings around vertical/horizontal pipe chases.

                Also notice ignition sources that may need to be eliminated. While it is inconceivable to operate a plant without any ignition source, maybe you can work to lessen the risk by properly storing hazardous chemicals and fuels, putting covers on machinery that might spark, moving smoking areas well away from buildings and pallet or lumber stacks, removing wood dust as much as possible, etc.


Cleanliness Improves Workplace Safety

                From reducing the fuel load and the amount of material that can spread fire to providing access for fire fighters to a clear pathway for employees to escape, keeping everything clean and organized can go a long way in improving your chances to lower insurance costs as well as prevent catastrophic fire.

                Swenby stated, “The plant that we recently lost was our OSHA SHARP plant. It had the most safety procedures and controls in place.” This has led Paltech to review its procedures and work to reduce hazards.

                Swenby explained, “The thing that we are focusing on right now is to monitor, maintain and reduce the wood dust that gets generated. We are cleaning the warehouses better. But the problem is that sawdust is so light, and pallets are just dirty. There is a huge amount of dust that just gets pushed around the plant.”

                Paltech has started a thorough process of vacuuming and using positive pressure to remove as much wood dust and common dust as possible.

                Jary Winstead, an industrial safety trainer and expert and columnist for the Pallet Enterprise, said, “Obviously, the big thing for the pallet industry is combustible dust accumulation. One area that gets ignored is upper beams. They get combustible dust accumulation on them. OSHA defines combustible dust as: A combustible particulate solid that presents a fire or deflagration hazard when suspended in air or some other oxidizing medium over a range of concentrations, regardless of particle size or shape. There is now an OSHA Federal Directive regarding combustible Dust. (See OSHA Directive Number: CPL 03-00-008) This would also fall under OSHA Standards; 29 CFR 1910.22 (housekeeping) or, where appropriate, 29 CFR 1910.176(c) (housekeeping in storage areas)

                Winstead added, “You cannot have combustible dust accumulation 1/32” or above. It becomes a real hazard. If the plant ever has a fire, the dust can ignite the whole building.” Winstead encourages clients to use personnel lifts to access areas where dust can accumulate in the rafters and beams and ceilings.

                OSHA actually requires that certain sectors have dust collection systems. You will see these more in sawmills and other facilities that generate lots of wood dust. But pallet companies should evaluate this technology as an option for parts of the operation that create excessive dust.

                OSHA regulation 1910.265(c)(20)(ii) states that “All mills containing one or more machines that create dust, shavings, chips, or slivers during a period of time equal to or greater than one-fourth of the working day, shall be equipped with a collecting system. It may be either continuous or automatic, and shall be of sufficient strength and capacity to enable it to remove such refuse from points of operation and immediate vicinities of machines and work areas.”


Practice Makes Perfect

                Everyone remembers the fire drills that teachers made you do in school. Well, companies must have an emergency plan in place in the case of an accident or fire. And it isn’t good enough to just have one on paper. You need to practice this with your workers and make sure that they will respond in the right way if an accident actually takes place. Practice helps people revert back to their experience in the case of a real life situation, which is much better than just hoping that they read the memo you gave out at a meeting or posted on a wall.

                Swenby said that nobody was hurt in the recent fire at his Ozark plant because everyone evacuated the building. He gave credit to his employees for doing the right thing.  He said, “All of our procedures, everything was done right. If you can’t knock it down and put out the fire, get out of the way, and get everyone else out of the way. We did all of that properly.”

                Many pallet and lumber facilities don’t have an adequate emergency preparedness plan for evacuation, fire safety and fire extinguisher training commented Winstead. He added, “Every pallet company needs to have an emergency preparation plan in place and to make sure that employees know what to do in case of a fire.”

                The plan should cover all the key things that employees and managers will need to know so that they don’t have to think about what to do; they can simply react to the situation based on their training. Federal law requires that any company with over 12 employees have an emergency plan in place.

                Beyond merely developing a plan, it must be conveyed and practiced with employees or else you have risks of legal liability in the case of an accident. The plan should cover how to respond to a fire, the placement and use of fire extinguishers, how to report a fire to a supervisor, evacuation and escape routes, where employees will gather after leaving the scene, and roll call and counting procedures to ensure that everyone is out of the facility.

                Managers must be trained on their responsibilities, such as who is responsible for communicating what to employees, who will conduct a roll call, who calls the fire department, what if any items are removed from the office in the event of a fire, basic first aid for workplace accidents, etc.


Fire Suppression and Fire Fighting Systems

                Fire codes require that buildings have proper fire suppression systems in place. This may include fire alarms, smoke detectors, fire sprinklers, sprinkler systems, fire hydrants or other resources to stop or reduce the spread of a fire.

                It’s not uncommon to see the wrong type of fire extinguisher placed in an area where there is a different type of combustible in the immediate area. Example: a class “A” fire extinguisher in an area of electrical panels. To be sure you are fighting a fire with the proper extinguisher, it is important to know how to identify the different types. See Sidebar 1 for more information.

                Every company vehicle should have a fire extinguisher in it. In general, fire extinguishers should be placed so that they can be accessible without subjecting a worker to injury, which is why you see them near exits. According to Winstead, a good rule is: if there are only Class A fuels present, you should have a fire extinguisher at least every 75 feet, and if there are Class B fuels present, you should have a fire extinguisher available at least every 50 feet. Fire extinguishers must always be accessible, and securely mounted at around 42" in height.

                Winstead clarified, “Fire suppression systems have to be inspected annually or else you can get in big trouble.” And some aspects need to be inspected more frequently than that.

                Fire extinguishers should be inspected by a qualified member of your management team or safety committee monthly. Sprinklers, extinguishers and other systems require annual inspection by an independent specialist.  The monthly inspection of fire extinguishers doesn’t take a lot of time.

                Winstead explained, “A lot of companies that I visit have a program in place to do annual third party inspections of fire extinguishers, but they don’t have anything in place to have employees do monthly visual inspections, which is required by federal regulations.”

                The key for these monthly inspections is to make sure that extinguishers are in place, charged, not leaking, have not been discharged, the tags are still in place, the extinguishers are properly mounted, the zip strap is not broken off, etc. The person doing the inspection should sign his or her initials to indicate the inspection was completed. Both OSHA and local fire marshals could issue a citation for not doing this procedure.

                Winstead cautioned, “If you ever have a fire and the insurance companies see that extinguishers were not regularly inspected, you could be liable, especially if there is personal injury that takes place due to the incident.”  He recommends that your safety committee completes the monthly fire extinguisher inspections after the monthly safety committee meetings.   


Storage Practices

                When a fire gets going, almost anything can burn. Federal and local standards are designed to help reduce fuel loads in buildings and reduce the spread of fires from one structure to another. How you store everything from hazardous chemicals to pallets or lumber can impact your risk profile.

                Gutierrez of Robitaille Insurance said that how you manage your square footage is an area of concern for pallet companies. This is because concentration of pallets can add to the fuel load on a piece of property.

                Swenby added that insurance providers want a clear perimeter around buildings and better paths between piles of pallets than you might typically find in a pallet facility. Paltech also works to limit flammable or explosive items that could easily be an ignition source. For example, Paltech now makes sure that no more than one day’s work worth of paint or other flammable fluids is out on the floor at any one time. All the rest is packed away in a fire proof safe room. The company has also worked to remove and clean up wood pieces underneath machines and improve the storage of pallet piles. It now provides a 15 foot perimeter up around the buildings to ensure that pallets or lumber are not stored too close to buildings.

                Winstead said that it is important to have combustibles in proper locations including little things that could cause a problem. He suggested, “You should even have oily rag containers to hold oily rags so that you reduce your potential for spontaneous combustion.”        

                It is important to keep fire lanes open and open access to hydrants so that fire fighters can help put out or contain a blaze. Winstead further commented, “What is required in terms of storage can vary depending on the building, the local environment and the material being stored.”


Miscellaneous Things to Remember

                 Other common areas of concern during an inspection include electrical systems and wiring, machinery and mechanical systems and basic industrial practices.

                Allowing electrical devices, such as radios, space heaters or power cords used as permanent wiring can lead to accident ignition. Spark producing machinery should be properly shielded and used to reduce the likelihood that an errant spark starts a fire. Some states outlaw the use of incinerators. If your company uses one, make sure to follow guidelines about when and how to operate it.

                Electrical boxes should be properly guarded and closed to reduce the likelihood that wood dust can get inside. All wiring should be up to code and properly installed and checked.

                Employee smoking areas should be properly identified and positioned away from ignition sources and combustibles, including pallet and lumber stacks and buildings.

                Conducting your own inspection can improve your safety status as well as reduce your exposure to citations or catastrophic fire. Winstead cautioned, “If you are in a city, you are likely going to get inspected every year or so. That is particularly true if inspectors find you to be a high risk.”

                Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on fire prevention, insurance and other related matters. If you would like assistance in improving your fire and safety practices, consider calling Jary Winstead of Work Safety Services LLC. He can be reached at SAFEJARY@aol.com.


Types of Fire Extinguishers and Their Uses

                Many fire extinguishers have color-coded symbols on their label to show their classification (A-green triangle, B-red square, C-blue circle, D-yellow star). Some extinguishers are marked with just the letter signifying the class of extinguisher. Extinguishers with multiple ratings such as AB, BC or ABC are capable of putting out more than one class of fire. Fire extinguishers are classified by the class of fire which they’re designed to extinguish.

                Different extinguishing agents can be used to put out different classes of fires by one or more of the following methods: removing oxygen, heat, fuel and interrupting the chemical chain reaction. Portable fire extinguishers are effective in putting out small fires, but care must be taken in their proper selection and use. To select the proper fire extinguisher, you must first become familiar with the different classes of fires.


Classes of Fires and Relevant Extinguishers

Class A fires have ordinary combustible materials, such as wood, paper, cloth, rubber and some plastics. Cooling the material below its ignition temperature and soaking the fibers should prevent re-ignition. Pressurized water, foam, or multipurpose dry chemical extinguishers should be used. Never use carbon dioxide or ordinary dry chemical extinguishers on a Class A fire.

Class B fires involve flammable or combustible liquids such as gasoline, diesel, paint, paint thinners and propane. These types of fires should be extinguished by using foam, carbon dioxide, ordinary dry chemical, multi-purpose and dry chemical extinguishers.

Class C fires involve energized electrical equipment, such as appliances, switches, panel boxes, and power tools. Carbon dioxide, ordinary dry chemical, and multi-purpose dry chemical fire extinguishers may be used to fight Class C fires. Class A extinguishers or water should never be used on electrical fires because of the shock hazard.

Class D fires involve certain combustible metals, such as magnesium, titanium, potassium, and sodium. These metals burn at temperatures high enough to pull oxygen out of other materials sufficient to support combustion. They may react violently with water or other chemicals, and must be handled with care. Dry powder extinguishing agents especially designed for the particular material involved should be used.

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