Mark Dunham warns warehouse operators about the effects a change in working practices can have on fire safety

Businesses are constantly striving to cut costs while improving processes and efficiency, yet many organisations are often unaware that small changes can have serious risks attached, which must be properly managed.

The use of plastic pallets in warehouses is a good example. Businesses may not realise that the move towards using pallets made of plastic, as opposed to the traditional wooden ones, is presenting a potentially devastating risk to the company.

The reasons for changing to plastic pallets are simple – they are lightweight, easier to clean and robust – a seemingly perfect replacement for the wooden alternative, which frequently break and splinter, and can result in injury to those having to use or move them.

However, while businesses focus on the positives of this change to working practice, the fire risks are often overlooked along with the implications of their introduction on the effectiveness of existing fire fighting systems.

Plastic pallets have different fire characteristics to those made of wood. They ignite much more easily and once on fire, flaming droplets form, which can increase the rate at which a fire will spread. The type of fire that these highdensity polyethylene pallets causes should not be underestimated as they produce a much higher heat yield, equivalent to liquid fuel burning. This means that the original sprinkler system design could be inadequate and the system could be overwhelmed, fail, and result in the warehouse going up in flames.

If using plastic pallets, businesses are strongly advised to review the adequacy of the existing sprinkler system in conjunction with their insurers.

In some cases the insurer may insist that traditional wooden pallets are retained until sprinkler modifications are made. However controlling the use of plastic pallets is not always that simple, as the warehouse may not be able to specify the type of pallets used by their suppliers.

The risk to people within the warehouse must also be taken into consideration. The increased speed of the spreading fire may mean evacuation time is greatly reduced and the fumes produced by burning plastic can be extremely harmful to those within the building as well as the attending fire crews.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, introduced in October 2005, has forced many businesses to take action as it firmly places the onus for fire safety on the business itself. Although help will be available, it is down to businesses to embrace these changes and take responsibility for fire safety.

A fire risk assessment is a principal part to this legislation, which must be carried out by the appointed ‘responsible person’, who has a legal duty to take steps to reduce any potential hazards.

The assessment consists of a number of important steps: to identify the nature and location of potential fire hazards and the peopleparticularly at risk; to evaluate, remove or reduce those risks and record the results; inform all employees of any risks and necessary procedures and finally, it is crucial that all plans must be reviewed regularly to ensure they are fully up to date.

Businesses may overlook practices they have followed for many years, and therefore certain fire hazards can go unnoticed. For example, the majority of warehouses will house a forklift truck, which are often battery powered and need to be charged overnight. If the charger is faulty, it could overheat and cause a spark igniting combustible materials in close proximity, which can quickly become an uncontrollable blaze.

For this reason, the business needs to ensure that the area where the truck is being charged is kept clear and safe, or better still, that there is a completely separate area where the machinery is charged.

The risk of arson should not be underestimated and the external storage of pallets and other combustible materials is a key consideration.

Pallets stacked against an external wall are an open invitation for arsonists, and a resulting fire could destroy the whole building.

In order to minimise this risk it is recommended that all combustiblematerials (including waste) kept externally is securely stored in suitable receptacles and, along with any pallets, should be kept at least ten metres away from the building.

The introduction of ‘smoking free’ workplaces from July this year should greatly reduce the risk of smokingmaterials causing fire in the building, particularly from matches and discarded cigarette ends. However, the location of any designated smoking area can still pose a serious risk if near combustible materials stored externally.

When it comes to fire risk avoidance in warehouses, a fire risk assessment is a good place to start, and a very positive step towards ensuring safety. It should be emphasised that all measures must be kept up to date as even seemingly tiny changes to working practices, such as the move to introduce plastic pallets, can significantly alter the nature of the fire risks presented.

Although the regulations place the onus on the business itself to manage fire risks, consultation with the insurer is always recommended.

Mark Dunham is industrial underwriting manager at Norwich Union