Blaze away: fire detection technology in manufacturing

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Fires can be costly – not to mention deadly. With flammable substances in close proximity to sources of ignition, the manufacturing sector faces inherent fire risks. But fire-detection technology could help.

Due the nature of their activities, manufacturing facilities face potential catastrophic fires from many sources, from highly combustible process materials to the products themselves. Thousands of litres of flammable oils, sprays and lubricants in close proximity with multiple sources of ignition present a danger that must keep the professionals responsible ever alert.

In March this year, for instance, Kelloggs’ manufacturing plant in Manchester suffered yet another fire. A cereal oven overheated and flames set alight pockets of dust that had accumulated in the ducting. The blaze spread through ducting across part of the plant on the fifth and sixth floors of the factory. It took fire services 12 hours to extinguish the blaze and the plant had to be evacuated. In June 2013 at the same facility, a conveyor belt in the oven caught fire and in April of the same year another fire was also thought to have been caused by an oven.

While it can be hard to determine the cost to the business, it is has been stated that a small fire at Kelloggs’ plant in Omaha, Nebraska, which was brought under control in an hour, caused an estimated $80,000 damage to the structure and $35,000 to equipment.

These are not major blazes: no one died, there were no serious casualties and no long-term disruption was reported. Kelloggs has been very lucky; many manufacturing facility fires do claim lives, cause serious injury and destroy facilities.

Inherent dangers
The sources of industrial fires are diverse. Indeed, motors, pumps, ball bearings, hydraulic fluids, finely sprayed oils, flammable gas fuels and coating oils are additional sources of fire danger that were not causes of fire in the above examples, and this list is not exhaustive.

Moreover, the quantities of gas, oils and liquid used in manufacturing are by no means low. Some 5,000 gallons of soybean cooking oil fed the flames that took 100 firefighters six hours to extinguish at the Windsor Quality Food in Los Angeles in 2011. The cost of the blaze was calculated at $5m.

Ignition energies vary with different substances and for similar materials with differing moisture content and particle size. Even a low energy static discharged from a synthetic fibre jumper can trigger an ignition in some cases.

Fire detection technology
The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) 2002 assesses workplace dangers for fire and explosion hazard identification, and methods of prevention or mitigation. The regulations are comprehensive and the first point of reference for companies to prevent and reduce the risk of fire in industrial facilities.

Early fire detection needs to have effective and tailored solutions for the plants they protect. Manufacturing facilities can be particularly vulnerable to fires spreading rapidly throughout a plant owing to the nature of production processes. Conveyor belts, for instance, can often span multiple pieces of processing equipment as well as pass between several rooms. As Kelloggs found out, containing the progress of a fire in view of such vulnerabilities is challenging.

Technologies such as visual smoke detection (VSD), infrared (IR) and aspirating smoke detectors (ASD) give manufacturers a wide range of options for detecting fire.

There is also a range of options for reducing the heat and intensity of a fire before it can take hold: carbon dioxide and dry chemical powder, which can suffocate fires, are two solutions worth considering depending on the nature of the facilities and the substances present.

The DSEA regulations give clear instructions on what the employers are required to do, such as:

  • Determine dangerous substances  and fire and explosion risks
  • Put control measures in place to either remove those risks or, where this is not possible, control them
  • Put controls in place to reduce the effects of any incidents involving dangerous substances
  • Prepare plans and procedures to deal with accidents, incidents and emergencies
  • Make sure employees are properly informed about and trained to control or deal with the risks
  • Identify and classify areas of the workplace where explosive atmospheres may occur and avoid ignition sources in those areas.

Early fire detection solutions are available and while the danger of fire persists, as it always will, the benefits of tackling potentially catastrophic fires before they take hold are self-evident. Constant vigilance, adherence to fire safety procedures and never being complacent are key to avoiding the fate of Windsor and many others. Fire detection technology might look expensive, but the consequences of being negligent or even just an uncharacteristic oversight can be catastrophic.

Ali Aleali is business development manager of FireVu



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