As demand for warehouse space continues to soar, thanks to increased e-commerce demand, Paul Waldeck, Head of Risk & Compliance for Ambrey Baker Industrial Solutions, discusses the additional fire-safety factors that need to be considered for warehouse spaces.
Covid-19 will no doubt have a lasting impact on the way we shop. With online being the safest way to get goods, many have made a permanent switch and online continues to be the preferred way for many of us to get our shopping, from groceries to just about anything else.
This means that the warehouses that underpin the e-commerce sector are more vital to our economy than ever before, and warehouse fires have the potential to be even more detrimental. As well as posing a threat to life, warehouse fires can devastate businesses operations, massively disrupting the supply chain and leading to the loss of jobs and productivity.
Luckily, there are many additional measures to ensure your warehouse space is protected.
The impact of fires on business
Recent research by insurance provider Zurich revealed that the number of warehouse fires remained consistent between 2019 and 2020. However, the number of warehouses completely destroyed by fire increased by a massive 42% in the same period.
While the overall number of warehouse fires is dropping, the cost of insurance claims has increased, with Zurich showing the average cost of large warehouse fires to be £5.9 million, meaning fire prevention can save your business more money than ever.
Additional research by the Fire Protection Association (FPA) found an average loss of £657,074 per incident. The research looked at 4,782 major fires in the UK between January 2009 and December 2019 where the financial loss was more than £100,000. Manufacturing and industrial processing buildings suffered the largest overall impact over the 10-year period, with losses totalling £808 million.
What causes warehouse fires?
One significant issue with the demand for warehouse space, and one that lends itself to the increased fire risk, is the lack of space for new builds. Development land is a finite resource and new developments take time. Many operators are therefore looking at old spaces – adapting and scaling existing, industrial properties to satisfy the demand.
However, building regulations fall short on fire precautions for developing older buildings and warehousing in general, treating all single-storey buildings similarly. This results in developments that may be compliant with statutory guidance but aren’t properly equipped to prevent fire risk in modern warehouses.
There are several common causes of warehouse fires, the most frequent being arson attacks, though there are many other common causes that can be preventable with the correct infrastructure:
- Electrical faults: Issues with electrical installations are the second largest cause of warehouse fires.
- Heating equipment: Around 8% of warehouse fires are caused by heating equipment, with poor placement and careless usage contributing to the danger.
- Exposure: Combustible materials are another common cause of warehouse fires. Warehouse managers must review the risk category of goods stored and not overlook the nature of packaging materials, often cardboard, plastic and polystyrene.
The lack of space for warehouses and the age of existing warehouse developments also means that often accessibility is impeded. In 12% of fires looked at by the FPA, fire and rescue services were obstructed in their ability to put out fires due to poor vehicle access to the front of a building.
In addition to common warehouse fire causes, there are sub-sector challenges specific to the temperature-controlled warehouse market.
The cold and chilled storage spaces within the sector are often at higher risk due to the nature of materials to ensure they’re temperature controlled.
There are other anomalies concerning these spaces. One should also be mindful of the dry atmospheric conditions within these spaces compared with ambient warehouses. The evaporative condensers that are used to sustain the low temperatures work by removing air moisture to very low levels of humidity, which would accelerate the spread of flame if a fire were to break out.
Fire doors and smoke and fire seals often need regular inspection and replacement because of operational wear and tear. These, and the aforementioned void space status and materials risk, should be inspected as part of the regular fire-risk audit process.
What can businesses do to prevent warehouse fires?
With all this said, there are plenty of additional precautions a business can implement to prevent fire hazards in the workplace and ensure the safety of all. By removing or suppressing the risk with any one of the three elements that cause fire, the risk is very low indeed. There are many things that businesses can be to minimise their risk of fires occurring or the implications of a fire spreading:
- Risk assessments: It’s a legal requirement to carry out a fire-risk assessment under The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. It is also worth having further independent audits by consultants and insurers who assist with fire strategy and associated mitigations. These audits include door and roof surveys that can be carried out regularly to identify the fire integrity of existing doors throughout a site. This allows you to find faults for each door and fire escape route. This also applies to the structural integrity of roof void panels throughout sites.
- Automatic Fire Detection: Ensuring that detectors are installed across your warehouse facility, paying special attention to any areas that may be more vulnerable to a fire breaking out or more volatile goods stored. There are numerous types: Thermal Imaging; Flame Detection; Spark Detection; Ember Detection; Rate of Rise of Heat Detection; and Addressable Linear Detection.
- Firewalls: The installation of firewalls, alongside these other considerations, is a very cost-effective solution to managing risk. Firewalls made to the highest specifications, allow you to control the uncontrollable and give yourself additional reassurance.
- Consider the storage of waste and other materials: Safe storage of waste and flammable materials can help to prevent the spread of fire if one breaks out. Highly combustible material and recyclables, such as paper and cardboard, should be kept away from anywhere with a higher risk of fires. Keeping these materials in a designated safe storage area will reduce the risk of them catching alight and causing a fire.
The stakes are high for warehouse and logistics companies operating in e-commerce, particularly cold and chill storage. The impact of a fire or the loss of a site can have catastrophic impacts in terms of loss of life and business disruption or even value or viability of a company. Given the business risks and the new levels of compliance expected post-Hackitt Report, insurance underwriters’ appetite for risk and the presence of potentially fire-accelerating environments and materials within their buildings, companies should revisit their strategic fire-mitigation provisions across their property portfolios.
Firms with better-protected assets are more likely to be compliant with the now, heightened duty of care, benefit from more favourable insurance premiums be more resilient and possess an advantage when negotiating distribution and storage contracts with customers.
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