How to Prevent Industrial Fires

Nov. 1, 1996
Use a three-phase accident investigation process to identify basic causes and take corrective action.

Fires and explosions needlessly kill and injure employees and damage billions of dollars worth of property and goods every year. Here are steps you can take to keep your business from going up in smoke.

William Fries admits he was shocked. Fries, director, property services, Loss Prevention Department, Liberty Mutual Group, thought he had seen and heard it all during his time with the company, but this was a new one.

During a routine inspection, he asked a safety director at a pulp and paper mill if it had a frequency problem with fires. He was relieved to hear that the company had never had a big fire.

His happiness was short-lived as the safety director went on to explain that once a week, a certain machine would cause a dust explosion, a small flash fire. The safety director tried to reassure Fries, telling him that the vigilant machine operator had a garden hose standing by and he "takes care of it."

"What if the operator was on break? What if he went to lunch or the bathroom when the flash fire occurred? That small controllable fire could take the entire plant down," said Fries, his voice rising with disbelief. "Those kinds of stories really shake me up."

Experts agree that there is no such beast as a fireproof facility. Too many elements are involved to make those kinds of claims. A host of factors -- building design and materials, machinery, wiring, fire supression systems, emergency response programs, alarm systems, inspection and testing of fire response equipment and systems, chemicals on site, training, housekeeping, end products -- can work alone or combine to impact on fire resistance and prevention. But there are a number of ways, said Fries, to avoid courting disaster like the safety director at the pulp and paper mill.

Protection and Prevention

Protection ensures that a minor event &emdash; a small containable fire in a trash can, for example &emdash; does not turn into a catastrophic event which can devastate a business, the lives of workers and a community. Prevention ensures that the trash can fire does not ignite in the first place.

Fries cites one example of such an event: An electric eraser used by drafters at one company was stored in such a way that the nose of the eraser pressed against the side of the drawer. The contact caused the eraser to switch on and vibrate. The constant friction caused the eraser to overheat and start a fire which spread throughout the room, fueled by the stacks of papers and plans used by the drafters.

"If that eraser had been properly stored, that fire would never have occurred," noted Fries. "Fires usually start small. Processes become so familiar that the workers lose respect for them, become a little bit careless, and that's all it takes."

The answer, said Fries, is prevention. Experts focus on several aspects of prevention -- good housekeeping, good work habits, employee training and workplace inspection -- as ways to avoid minor events and major catastrophes. According to figures from Factory Mutual, three-fifths of fires and nearly three-fourths of property damage could be avoided through preventive maintenance and frequent inspection and testing of equipment and electrical systems; taking proper safety precautions during maintenance operations; and using caution around open flames.

"Many of the fires we've responded to were due to inadequate work practices -- such as cutting and welding operations without a fire watch [keeping a close watch on an area in which hot work has been conducted for several hours after the work has been completed]. Others were at areas which weren't cleaned up, did not have flammables and combustibles properly stored or had grease or oil-soaked floors," said Scott Dornen, a fire chief at Atlantic Richfield Co.'s (ARCO) Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, facility and a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

According to Dornen, such incidents at his location have declined in recent years due to several factors. At the height of construction on the Alaska pipeline, ARCO had as many as 120 contractor companies on site, all with different safety policies and procedures. Many of those companies are gone, and with less construction and fewer operations and employees, the opportunities for fires and explosions have diminished.

"It's the difference between the number of fires in a city of 100,000 people versus a city of 1 million people," noted Dornen.

He added that many of the companies with which ARCO now contracts have improved their maintenance, inspection and housekeeping, in part because of the high standards ARCO maintains for its own operations.

For example, before new facilities are constructed at ARCO or a new process undertaken, the building plans go through an extensive design review which includes the use of a 1-to-24 inch scale model. All engineering controls to prevent and protect against fire and explosion are examined.

Dornen helps review the layout of fixed protection, such as sprinkler and alarm systems, to make sure it is more than adequate to meet the challenges of the operations planned for that facility. The scale models help Dornen and the safety department, with whom he closely works, look for things like blocked emergency exits, dead-end aisles and walkways, locations of storage areas for chemicals and inventory which are away from potential ignition sources, and emergency escape routes. Through the use of such models, they can also examine the placement of fire walls and doors to make sure that fires can be contained in specific areas.

Building in Fire Safety

In addition to planning fire safety into the design of new facilities and processes, experts suggest a close evaluation of the materials used to construct new buildings and/or maintain older ones. Determining the fire protection factors for buildings and materials can seem daunting, but James Martin, a property team leader with the Loss Control Group, ITT Hartford Group, notes that many business insurers are willing to advise their clients about fire prevention and protection.

He offers up this list of questions that safety professionals, building engineers and emergency response personnel need to be able to answer about their workplace:

  • What are the structural building materials?
  • Are the walls, ceilings and floors, furniture, floor coverings and window treatments fire-resistant?
  • Do they meet or exceed current NFPA, Underwriters Laboratories and industry standards, as well as state and federal codes?
  • Are the fire suppression systems adequate to meet the needs of the facility and the potential hazards?
  • Is the local water supply adequate to meet the needs of the sprinkler system and emergency responders?
  • Are there adequate, properly marked emergency exits?
  • Are there fire walls and doors to prevent or slow the spread of fire from one area to the next?

Other suggestions from Martin include: surveying employees to make sure they know what to do in case of fire; having a yearly training session which includes employees and emergency responders from the facility and community; asking contractors about their loss control practices and using contractors who have demonstrated safe work practices; and not only inspecting sprinklers and alarms weekly, but also testing them on a regular basis.

"I've seen situations where the water supply was shut off at the street, but the sprinklers still showed water pressure on the inside valves. Anyone inspecting that system would think it was working. If they tested it, they would discover there was no water," said Martin.

He said that alarm systems should be hooked up to emergency generators as well as the central power source. It's not inconceivable that in a fire or other emergency situation, the main electrical system would shut down.

He also suggested using extreme caution when conducting maintenance operations which involve drilling holes in ceilings and floors. Any pipe chases which travel between floors must be properly sealed with a fire retardant material. Otherwise, they provide a perfect opportunity for a fire to jump from floor to floor and engulf an entire building.

Finally, said Martin, get upper management involved and proactive about fire safety. If management focuses attention and resources on fire prevention and proactive maintenance, employees will understand that fire safety, good maintenance and housekeeping are important parts of their jobs.

The True Cost of Fire

While no one wants to suffer through a fire, management might balk at some of the expenses associated with fire prevention and protection, cautioned experts. The cost of emergency response drills, building scale models, providing employee training, purchasing state-of-the-art fire protection systems and materials for new buildings and retrofitting older buildings with fire suppression systems can be high. But experts agree that it is money well spent.

Figures from the National Fire Protection Association show that each year, some 85,000 fires occur in the workplace, causing an annual average of 89 deaths to employees and customers and a whopping $1.856 billion in direct property damage. And that does not take indirect costs, which can double or triple the damage amount, into consideration.

"The cost of a fire or explosion is much greater than the dollar amount of the damage," explained Mark Blank, engineering team leader, Factory Mutual System, Chicago. "Imagine a group of sales people about to sign a big production deal who are left hanging because the production line had to shut down as a result of a fire and they can't promise a delivery date. It could take years to build back the business that is lost when buyers turn to other suppliers."

He said that he has seen more than one corporation relocate operations from burned-out facilities to other facilities rather than rebuild, and has seen companies take insurance payments and rebuild in other cities or states where the costs of doing business are lower.

"I've seen companies with only one facility go out of business because between the lost business and production downtime and the amount of the loss which they couldn't recover through insurance, they couldn't afford to rebuild. Plus, mortgage bills and tax bills keep coming in, even when production is stopped," said Blank.

By all means, said Blank, purchase insurance. But, he added, the best insurance is prevention.

"The U.S. has the highest fire incidence rate of any country in the world and the smallest regard for fire. We tell kids not to play with fire and matches, but as adults, we seem to forget why it's a bad idea. It's sad because fires would not occur if people would just take the time to take precautions to prevent them," he said.


Not all fire prevention strategies involve expensive equipment or extensive remodeling.

According to Lawrence Oldendorf, who has 40 years experience in fire protection and prevention and is president of Fire and Safety Engineering Services, Burbank, Ill., one of the least expensive and most effective ways to prevent fires is through good housekeeping techniques.

According to him, as many as 90 percent of all fires are caused or fueled by unneeded combustibles. While combustibles can include oil-soaked rags and trash, it goes much further than that.

"Extra packing boxes stored in the wrong place -- close to ignition sources -- are combustibles. Chemicals stored near work areas instead of in flame- and explosion-resistant drums and cabinets are combustibles," said Oldendorf. "Bottles of alcohol stored on every desk in a cleanroom are combustibles."

He noted that while it is easier to store bottles of cleaners and chemicals close to work sites, it is a dangerous practice. It is also dangerous to store containers of flammable, reactive and explosive chemicals in shipping cartons, unless the containers or cartons are flame-resistant. "Storage boxes are inexpensive and storage cabinets can be expensive," said Oldendorf, "but the cost of a fire is much more expensive."

To cut down on costs, he suggests keeping extra inventory of flammables to a minimum. Less storage space is needed, said Oldendorf, and potential fuel sources for a fire are decreased.

Other suggestions from Oldendorf include:

  • Clean up oil and chemical spills immediately, and keep work areas free of any extra paper, boxes or rags.
  • Don't string electrical cords across floors or walkways where they can be stepped on and frayed, opening your facility up to the possibility of an electrical fire.
  • De-energize machinery before any maintenance work is started and thoroughly inspect that equipment before the power is turned back on.
  • Keep tools which cause friction or sparks away from areas where explosive and flammable materials are present.
  • If temporary scaffolding or partitions are erected, make sure they are metal or made with materials treated with flame retardants.
  • Use a temporary sprinkler system in areas where hot work is being conducted or for areas being used to temporarily store flammable materials.
  • Train employees in the various sounds made by the alarm system and what action they need to take when an alarm sounds.
  • Invite outside emergency responders into the facility and educate them about hazards. Have an emergency plan in place and conduct a full-fledged emergency response drill at least once a year.
  • Routinely inspect and test fire extinguishers and check that all exit and direction signs provide correct information, are in place and are well-lit even during a power outage.



Hot work is the cause of hundreds of industrial fires annually. Most are quickly contained. Some fires snuff themselves out before employees even know they occurred, while others destroy facilities and ruin lives.

Mark Blank, engineering team leader at Factory Mutual System's Chicago office, said that the biggest challenge he faces is making people understand the concept of "hot" work.

"People don't have fires every day. They think that it won't happen to them, that they don't do anything which could contribute to a fire," said Blank.

What they don't understand is that any time they have open flames, sparks or hot surfaces, they have a potential fire hazard. Cutting torches, propane torches, welding and grinding operations, portable drills and internal combustion engines are all ignition sources. Throw in some fuel &emdash; wood, paper, rags, oil, chemicals, alcohol, gasoline &emdash; and it is a fire waiting to happen, said Blank.

"A cutting torch can reach 2,000 degrees. That's plenty hot to ignite just about anything," he commented.

Any time a maintenance operation involving cutting, grinding or welding is undertaken, he suggests conducting a step-by-step review of the process.

First, look for alternatives. Does a joint have to be welded or can it be bolted? Does a bolt have to be drilled out or can it be cut off using hydraulic shears?

If alternatives do not exist, take the operation to another area whenever possible, one which is outside the facility or in an isolated area away from fuel sources and employees.

If the operation cannot be moved, don't allow the process to be conducted until a permit is issued which verifies that the location of the work has been properly prepared.

Preparation for hot work is extensive, noted Blank. A 35-foot distance is needed between the hot work and combustibles. Anything which cannot be moved should be covered with a welding tarp. If the work is being conducted in a building made of materials which can burn, then the walls, floors and possibly ceilings in the area need to be covered or treated with flame retardants.

Check that pipe chases are properly sealed so that sparks cannot fall between floors and ceilings or back in walls. Many types of dust can burn or explode; eliminate or clean dust hazards before beginning hot work. If the work is conducted in a room with an operation involving flammable liquids, remove any containers of flammables and purge all equipment of traces of flammable liquid.

"You have to understand that you are bringing a very hazardous operation into a place not suited for it," said Blank, comparing it to lighting a cigarette in a dynamite factory.

Once the hot work is completed, the work is not over. At least one person needs to be designated as a fire watch. He or she stands guard over the area for an hour to watch for smoke or flames; makes sure that no flammables are brought back into the area; and checks that the area remains closed off until the threat of a stray spark or flame has passed. The area should continue to be closely monitored -- inspected every 20 minutes or so -- for an additional 3 hours. For that reason, Blank suggests doing hot work at the beginning of the day or at the beginning of shifts. He also suggests assigning an employee to be a fire watch even if the work is conducted by an outside contractor.

"An outside contractor might be very competent in his line of work, but not very knowledgeable about fire protection and hazards at the facility. The contractor might have different priorities and might just think that it's costing him money to have one of his people stand watch rather than work on another job," said Blank. He said he encourages building owners to retain the responsibility for providing a fire watch and permitting the area for hot work.

"People don't understand the risk that exists. It might take less time to take a cutting torch to a pipe, but there is a much greater potential exposure. You have to ask: Is it safe? If the answer is no, then don't do it," counseled Blank.



In the event of fire, response needs to be safe and speedy.

Employees should be trained to do the following:

  • Count the number of doors, machines or desks between their work areas and the nearest exit. During a fire, they might need to find their way out in the dark.
  • Learn the location of alternative exits from all work areas.
  • Know the location of the nearest fire alarm and learn how to use it.
  • Post emergency phone numbers on or near all phones.
  • Be sure that someone in authority knows about any disability that could delay an escape and makes plans for a safe evacuation.

Employers must:

  • Post building evacuation plans and discuss them during new-employee orientations.
  • Conduct regular fire drills.
  • Include disabled employees in the fire emergency planning process.
  • Train designated employees in the use of portable fire extinguishers and designate employees who will help evacuate fire scenes.

Source: National Fire Protection Association

Occupational Hazards, November 1996, page 44

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!