With more UK waste and recycling facilities experiencing large blazes at their premises, Owen Batham believes it’s time for businesses to take the initiative and act.

ALL WASTE and recycling facilities are encouraged to develop their risk management strategies based on Pollution Protection Guidance (PPG29), which was developed to help businesses reduce the risk and impact of a fire at their sites, and was designed to help minimise the threat to both personnel and the environment.

The primary risk management strategy of the guide recommends the use of a combination of maximum stack sizes and minimum separation distances between stacks of combustible materials.

Updated in 2010, the guide does share best practice standards, but adopts very much a one-size-fits-all approach. This may work for some businesses, but fails to consider any other approaches that might be used in fire protection plans.

There is an increasingly urgent need for businesses to become more proactive and act to protect themselves, their staff and their assets. Part of this important work is the development of more advanced disaster recovery plans to suit industry and commerce’s evolving needs.

Headline blazes

Take the fire that broke out at a Worksop recycling centre in February, which started in a building that stored materials destined for recycling. It was the third blaze at the centre in just six months. Up to 50 firefighters and officers from 10 different fire stations attended the incident and used seven water jets, an aerial ladder platform and two light portable pumps to bring the ferocious fire under control.

Another example is the fire at a family-run Horwich recycling plant near Bolton in Greater Manchester on 27 February. Two of the firm’s employees were working on a night shift when they realised a fire had broken out, after seeing thick black smoke coming from an area containing wooden pallets in the corner of the factory. A number
of firefighters from the Lancashire and Greater Manchester fire services attended the blaze and advised nearby residents to close their windows and doors due to the amount of toxic fumes. The premises were completely engulfed in flames and the windy weather conditions also left other buildings at significant risk of catching fire.

Although the cause of these fires is still under investigation, they are a small selection of many that have hit the headlines recently. The majority of the firms affected followed the guidelines to the letter, provided sufficient gaps between materials, managed their stack heights and did everything in their power to avoid a disaster. Yet, despite having all of these safeguards in place, they still suffered not only the devastating results of a fire starting, but also the initial fire quickly spreading throughout their premises.

Fires in recycling plants that store combustible materials can start extremely easily, whether through an electrical fault, arson, plant machinery or equipment, through to industrial heaters, electrical cables and even rare natural occurrences such as a lightning strike.

Recently, another fire broke out in a West Midlands plastic and paper recycling plant located in Smethwick, Birmingham, and the firm suffered a similar fate. The fire was caused by a sky lantern which, when it landed on one of the firm’s stockpiles, ignited thousands of tons of baled plastics and paper destined for recycling. This too caused a massive disruption to both the local community and local businesses, and even the Environment Agency got involved because of the potential pollution caused by firewater run-off entering a local canal network that could have impacted streams, human health and the wider environment.

These are just a few of many fires that evidence better than any argument that we need to be more proactive and sophisticated in our battle to manage risk and avert other potential incidents.

Alternatives to spacing

Adhering to PPG29 can also prove substantially more expensive and is not necessarily the most efficient option for businesses, especially those that are based in city centres and urban locations where space is at a premium. Using physical fire breaks instead of the appropriate spaces and gaps can ensure that recycling facilities make much better use of their sites. They can be built into temporary bay walls, used to segregate combustible materials and use up space that otherwise would have had to be left clear.

Rather than simply focusing on gaps and height limits for combustible materials, we should focus on the use of physical fire breaks, which make sense both from a health and safety and also a commercially astute perspective. We have repeatedly seen the use of high-quality, free-standing physical fire breaks reduce the risk of fires spreading and allow businesses to make better use of their sites, ultimately giving them more space to grow both in terms of scale and profitability

Doing nothing and maintaining our blinkered focus on the PPG29 guidelines at the exclusion of all other risk mitigation strategies is not an option for many in the sector – and certainly for those who have suffered issues in the past. We need to replace PPG29’s one-size-fits-all approach by introducing alternative methods to prevent, mitigate and control fires, and physical fire breaks absolutely deserve their place in any plan.

Concrete fire breaks

High-quality concrete blocks act as an effective physical fire break. Unlike steel or timber, they have the lowest rate of temperature rise across the surface and their internal zones do not reach the same high temperatures as a surface exposed to flames. Put simply, concrete doesn’t add to a fire’s fuel load, and very few other materials can argue the same.

In addition, precast interlocking concrete blocks do not emit any toxic gases or fumes, are resilient to smouldering materials, and – if properly designed and manufactured – can be described as ‘fire proof’. The British and European Standards, as well as the British Precast Concrete Federation, help to distinguish whether concrete blocks are fit-for-purpose. These very much focus on the constituent ingredients of the concrete – only blocks that comprise less than 1% organic constituents with no recycled material should be considered as being Class 1A Fire Resistant based on clause 4.3.4.4 of BS EN 13369: 2013: Common rules for precast concrete products.

By using freestanding interlocking concrete blocks as fire breaks, not only can the costs and inconvenience of permanent footings be avoided, but the blocks can be easily dismantled and reassembled by untrained personnel, allowing firms and organisations to keep up with changing recycling trends, storage needs and commercial demands.

Positive insurer response

Insurance premiums have also rocketed in the past few years to cover payouts for other facilities that have suffered from fire at their premises. And we have heard reports of reduction in the depth of cover, harsh terms being added to policies, very high excesses and even cover being withdrawn altogether.

However, the use of physical fire breaks is already being reviewed and the topic has been receiving a positive response from the insurance sector too, with reductions in premiums and continuation of cover when there may have been previous doubt.

The time is absolutely right for new guidelines to be developed, but until then, businesses are urged to speak with colleagues, local fire safety officers and the wider community to help evolve outdated guidance into something that’s more reliable and efficient – not just until its next revision, but for the months and years ahead

Owen Batham is sales and marketing director at Elite Precast Concrete Limited.

Further information is available at www.eliteprecast.co.uk

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