How to Prevent Industrial Fires
Industrial fires and explosions cost companies and governments billions of dollars every year, not to mention the loss of life, which can’t be described in monetary terms.
These disasters happen for many reasons, often because managers and employees are not aware of the risks that surround them at work every day.
Here are five of the most common causes of industrial fires and explosions:
Often overlooked, and highly deadly, combustible dust is a major cause of fire in food manufacturing, woodworking, chemical manufacturing, metalworking, pharmaceuticals, and just about every other industry you can name. The reason is that just about everything, including food, dyes, chemicals, and metals — even materials that aren’t fire risks in larger pieces — has the potential to be combustible in dust form.
The key ingredient in combustible dust fires and explosions is the presence of the dust itself. While you probably won’t be able to eliminate dust entirely, you can make sure it doesn’t accumulate to a dangerous level simply by following a regular housekeeping regimen.
Although hot work is commonly equated with welding and torch cutting, there are many other activities — including brazing, burning, heating, and soldering — that pose a fire hazard. This is because the sparks and molten material, which reach temperatures greater than 1000°F, can easily travel more than 35 feet.
Like combustible dust incidents, hot work disasters are preventable by following proper safety procedures.
- Avoid hot work if possible. This isn’t always a feasible solution, but if there’s an alternative, take it.
- Train personnel on the hazards associated with hot work, any site-specific hazards, the proper policies and procedures, and the use of safety equipment.
- Ensure that the area is clear of flammable or combustible materials including dusts, liquids, and gases.
- Use a written permit system for all hot work projects, even where permits aren’t required. Better safe than sorry!
- Supervise the work. Especially if you use outside contractors, make sure a safety professional is on hand to provide supervision.
Flammable liquids and gases
These fires, which often occur at chemical plants, can be disastrous. These fires are often the result of explosions of flammable materials, such as rocket fuel (which produces a flammable gas), acrylic acid, and crude oil.
There is certainly some danger inherent in any work involving flammable liquids and gases, but all available safety precautions should be taken to mitigate these risks.
- Know the hazards. One major component of prevention is simply knowing the safety information for every liquid on your premises. This information is available on the material safety data sheet (MSDS) that comes with such products.
- Store flammable liquids properly. Make sure all hazardous materials are stored according to OSHA-compliant procedures.
- Control all ignition sources. Except for when you’re intentionally heating the flammable materials, keep ignition sources as far away from them as possible.
- Provide personal protective equipment. This is a must across all categories of fire hazards but especially when liquids and gases are involved.
Equipment and machinery
Heating and hot work equipment are typically the biggest problems here — in particular, furnaces that aren’t properly installed, operated, and maintained. In addition, any mechanical equipment can become a fire hazard because of friction between the moving parts. This risk can be brought down to practically zero simply by following recommended cleaning and maintenance procedures, including lubrication.
Strategies for preventing fires due to equipment and machinery issues fall into three main categories:
- Cleaning and housekeeping
Electrical fires are one of the top five causes of fires in manufacturing plants. Here is a non-exhaustive list of specific electrical hazards:
- Wiring that is exposed or not up to code
- Overloaded outlets
- Extension cords
- Overloaded circuits
- Static discharge
As with the previous risks, the key to preventing electrical fires is awareness and prevention. This involves training, maintenance, and following best practices. Here are a few to put into practice right now:
- Don’t overload electrical equipment or circuits.
- Don’t leave temporary equipment plugged in when it’s not in use.
- Avoid using extension cords, and never consider them permanent solutions.
- Use antistatic equipment where required by NFPA or OSHA.
- Follow a regular housekeeping plan to remove combustible dust and other hazardous materials from areas that contain equipment and machinery.
- Implement a reporting system so that anyone who observes an electrical fire risk can report it without consequences.
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