There are 37,000 industrial fires causing up to 18 deaths, 279 injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage in the U.S. every year. - Creative Commons

There are 37,000 industrial fires causing up to 18 deaths, 279 injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage in the U.S. every year.

Creative Commons

The story is an oldie, but a goodie taken from a 1996 article on industrial fires. In this article, an expert in loss prevention inspected a pulp and paper mill. When he asked if the facility had an issue with fires, the inspector heard the words he longed to hear: “No.” The paper mill’s safety director then explained they had a machine that would cause a dust explosion or small flash fire every week, but a vigilant machine operator doused the flames with a nearby garden hose before the fire spread.

Your industrial facility likely employs more sophisticated and reliable fire protection than the method described above, but this technology is not fireproof—and is not the only solution. Everything from building design and materials, machinery, wiring, fire suppression and alarm systems, chemicals stored on site, training and housekeeping impact fire resistance and protection.

With 37,000 industrial fires causing up to 18 deaths, 279 injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage in the U.S. every year, it behooves facility managers to revisit the top causes of industrial fires and examine what they are doing to prevent them.

1. Combustible Dust

OSHA reports any combustible material can burn rapidly when in finely divided form. The organization states, “If such a dust is suspended in the air in the right concentration, under certain conditions, it can become explosible.”

The force of these explosions can destroy entire buildings and kill people. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) reports that 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 caused the deaths of 119 workers, injured 718, and led to extensive damage in affected industrial facilities.

Though the risks are notable, many facilities overlook the dangers of combustible dust. Facilities producing coal, dyes, food, grain, metals, paper, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastics, pulp, rubber, tobacco, and wood, are all at risk.

With dust being the key ingredient in dust fires and explosions, every facility must make a concerted approach to remove dust. Though you cannot eliminate dust completely, it is possible to keep it from accumulating in dangerous levels.

Mitigation efforts start with a dust hazard analysis (DHA). A DHA is a systemic analytical review of a facility and its processes to identify combustible dust hazards. 

This evaluation examines operations, including process equipment, ducts and dust collection systems, to determine if they need administrative or engineering safeguards to reduce risks for combustible dust events. It also examines materials handled, operations performed, all spaces, and potential ignition sources. 

The resulting DHA report recommends methods to mitigate the potential for dust cloud ignition. These steps may include dust control measures, ignition control recommendations, and injury and damage control methods, according to an OSHA Fact Sheet titled “Hazard Alert: Combustible Dust Explosions.”

NFPA 652 requires a DHA every five years. But facilities should evaluate their hazards more often when processes or equipment change.

Though a DHA focuses on dust, you can conduct similar hazard analyses of your entire facility. Facility-wide analyses can pinpoint fire risks and identify ways to address them.

2. Hot Work

Hot work also causes industrial fires across all industries every year.

The NFPA defines hot work as that involving “burning, welding, or a similar operation that can start fires or explosions; activity involving flame, spark production, or heat; welding and allied processes including arc welding, oxy–fuel gas welding, open-flame soldering, brazing, thermal spraying, oxygen cutting, and arc cutting.”

The sparks and molten material generated by these processes can travel over 35 feet, and when they hit combustible dust or hazardous chemicals, they can cause them to ignite.

The best way to avoid hot work hazards is to avoid hot work. But that’s impractical when hot work is part of everything you do. When you cannot avoid hot work, it’s essential to create a fire protection and prevention plan and train personnel in its use.

NFPA recommends the following steps before performing hot work:

  • Recognize—Determine if fire risks exist before starting hot work.
  • Evaluate—Determine if hazards are present, especially hazards that could fuel a fire (flammable and combustible liquids or gases and simple combustibles).
  • Control—Take steps to eliminate or minimize hazards. A hot work permit helps the permit authorizing individual, hot work operator, and fire watch recognize potential hazards. Protect hot work areas with welding pads, blankets, or curtains, clearing combustibles from a 35-foot radius space around the hot work, or moving the hot work to an area free of combustibles.

3. Flammable Liquids and Gases

Large-scale explosions and loss of life can occur when flammable liquids and gases get exposed to a fire source. These fires spread quickly making it difficult for personnel to escape. Here, the best offense is a good defense. And prevention is the cure.

Companies must identify the hazards in their facility and know the safety information for every hazardous liquid or gas stored on site. You can find this information on the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for each product.

Then facilities must store hazardous materials in locations and containers recommended by OSHA. Consult OSHA regulations and the Combustible Liquid Code to safely store flammable liquids.

Remember to always keep ignition sources far from hazardous materials to mitigate risk. Store fuels a safe distance away from oxidizers.

Finally, put procedures in place, train employees on them, and monitor compliance to prevent potential fires and explosions. Human error or failure to follow established procedures causes many fires involving flammable gases and liquids.

4. Faulty Equipment and Machinery

Many industrial facilities rely on large equipment to conduct specific tasks. When building operators do not maintain equipment properly, it can cause a fire. It’s critical to maintain equipment regularly and teach employees how to use it properly.

The first level machinery fire prevention is the employees themselves. Train employees on the fire risks posed by the machinery and how to spot malfunctions that may lead to fire. Teach them to keep equipment and the surrounding areas clean and to follow all maintenance procedures for equipment.

Maintain all machines in your building regularly to prevent overheating or sparks generated from friction. Keeping equipment clean of greases and oils and preventing overheating will reduce fire risks.

5. Electrical Hazards

Electrical fires consistently make the Top 5 list of industrial fire causes. Worse, when electrical fires start, they can ignite other issues. For instance, they may cause a combustible dust explosion or ignite nearby flammable liquids or gases.

All too often, facilities have exposed wiring, overloaded outlets and circuits, extension cords powering large machines, and static discharge concerns.

The best way to prevent electrical hazard fires is to follow common safety practices such as not overloading equipment or circuits, avoiding extension cord use, and using antistatic equipment required by OSHA or NFPA. And follow NFPA codes and standards that deal with electrical issues—including:

  • NFPA 70, National Electrical Code (NEC)
  • NFPA 70B, Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance
  • NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace

Build in Fire Safety

The key to avoiding the Top 5 industrial fire hazards is building fire safety into daily operations. By establishing policies and procedures, then training employees well, you can improve the safety of your operation and reduce fire risk.

Establish safety procedures. These safety procedures should cover everything from personal protective equipment to emergency evacuations. These documents mean little if they collect dust on a shelf. Share them with all employees and review them often. Post signage throughout your facility reminding employees of safety and emergency procedures, evacuation routes, and policies like “No Smoking.”

Training. The next step is training. Train every employee how to perform their jobs in a fire safe way. Every employee needs general and job-specific fire safety training. This, too, is not a one-and-done process. Effective training occurs regularly to keep safety protocols and safe operational procedures top of mind.

Keep it clean. Dirty environments can cause fires. When equipment and machinery operate 24/7, keeping things clean can be difficult. But it must be done. Housekeeping falls into three categories:

  • Capture: Dust collection systems that collect dust before it escapes into work areas or other spaces.
  • Contain: Contain dust within equipment, systems, or rooms designed to manage accumulated combustible dust.
  • Clean: Frequent, thorough and approved housekeeping measures to remove dust in work areas, overhead surfaces and concealed spaces.

Everyone knows a garden hose is an unacceptable way to reduce fire risk. Knowing the top causes of industrial fires then taking steps to mitigate these risks will lead to a far better outcome.