UNDERSTANDING THE RISKS OF COMBUSTIBLE MATERIALS IN WAREHOUSES
29th April 2021
Power installations, such as a mains switchboard, are a common cause of fire in warehouses and storage areas. Operator negligence is another. For example, flammable material stored near lighting or next to a battery charger poses a serious fire risk, as does sparks caused by industrial processes such as welding. Fuel is the second factor involved in the origin of a fire and to understand its role, it is necessary to discuss what is known as the fire load. This is where the nature of goods or materials stored is of most importance, as it will affect how quickly a fire spreads.
The severity of a fire will depend on the combustibility of the material. Plastic and synthetic materials generally tend to burn more quickly than ordinary or natural materials such as cardboard. Therefore, there is a need to differentiate between stored goods and materials.
Type of storage is an influential factor in the cause of fire ignition and spread. Generally, indoor warehouses are designed with a specific storage capacity. However, financial considerations mean that the storage space is optimised, leading to high stacks with minimum separation distances between them and sometimes, the accumulation of large quantities of material in one area.
In addition to the factors outlined above, other elements which lead to increased vulnerability to risk include the fragile nature of certain valuable merchandise and the severity of the damage that may be caused to the warehouse or merchandise by certain building materials. The following are included among these factors:
• The existence of important electronic or precision equipment.
• The presence of documents or files of high strategic value to the company.
• Products liable to suffer damage due to combustion gases or as a result of environmental conditions producing rust.
• Luxury or valuable goods.
• Highly-combustible organic material, such as polyurethane or polystyrene, is normally found inside the panels and if a fire starts in their interior, it generally spreads quickly etc.
Fire protection measures, such as automatic sprinklers, installed at a premises influence the ability to control fires and to extinguish them with minimal consequences. Metallic structures without additional protection against fire are not advisable, as are constructions with combustible materials including light wood. Another important factor in combating fire-spread is warehouse ventilation. In general, the ventilation provided by windows or openings located in the higher sections of the façade or roof is enough to dissipate hot gases generated by fire. Nevertheless, national or local regulations may require the installation of smoke and heat vents. Other factors affecting the capacity to control and extinguish fire are the presence of active protection measures such as automatic detection systems; automatic extinguishing systems and as stated, automatic sprinkler installations.
The logistics sector is crucial to a county’s economy, and its influence will only increase as consumers choose to have items delivered to their door, rather than seek them out on the high street. It’s therefore essential close attention is paid to fire protection measures installed throughout warehouses and storage units. Serious fire in these spaces not only risks debilitating the storage company which owns the building, it could affect many links in the product supply chain; from the transportation company to potentially thousands of customers awaiting delivery of their order. Indeed, without a well-designed, fully-functioning automated sprinkler system, warehouse owners could be storing up a whole host of future problems.