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Why we must ensure fire safety as stockpiling continues

Author : Paul Waldeck, Executive Director, Ambrey Baker

01 December 2022

As 2022 draws to a close, delays and protracted supply shortages still plague the manufacturing industry. This has led to industry-wide behavioural changes and increased stockpiling in many UK factories. Now, more than ever, factories must ensure their fire safety protection is optimised to safeguard ever-increasing stock levels.

Image: Ambrey Baker
Image: Ambrey Baker

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Amid a period of uncertainty for the UK’s manufacturing industries, there are plenty of challenges to contend with. A confluence of factors, involving a lack of investment in infrastructure, rising costs and labour shortages, have led to a rise in average stock levels to cater for future volatility. These issues are dinting links throughout supply chains, causing factories to scramble for increased inventory space – be it through the restructuring of existing properties or expansions.

However, during this period, safety precautions and best practices must not be neglected. With increased stock levels, the damage that incidents can have, both financially and from a health & safety perspective, poses an additional risk. It is paramount that the integrity of fire-safe walls are assessed, with maintenance works or upgrades necessary to ensure stockpiling is done safely and efficiently.

Trustworthy protection

Research from insurance provider Zurich has revealed that UK fire crews attend an average of 336 warehouse fires every year, just short of one a day. Of those, 14% resulted in the destruction of the entire building.

Firewalls represent a cost-effective solution to risk management. Designed to the highest specifications and able to withstand a blaze for up to four hours, their thick, fire-resistant panels can successfully contain danger to their source, nullifying the spread. This isolation prevents situations from progressing and buys important time until fire services can arrive on the scene.

It isn’t just about protecting stock either. When considering the safety of staff and factory operatives, firewalls offer crucial protection of evacuation routes as they give you a degree of dictation as to where the blaze can and cannot spread to. In the case of a fire, regardless of its size, it means factory personnel can escape unharmed without the risk of becoming trapped by a rapidly spreading blaze. 

Image: Ambrey Baker
Image: Ambrey Baker

New age risks

Factories that undertake high-heat processes where the risk of fire outbreaks is elevated, firewalls are particularly well suited. Whilst we know these are traditionally high-risk environments, modern risks, such as automation, cannot be overlooked. With 81.2% of companies seeking to further invest in automation since 2020 (ABB Robotics research, September 2021), the fire hazards that robotics can create must be catered for.

This new wave of technology means that automation fires are a new and emerging risk area. With little actuarial data to rely on, care and precaution is the most effective combatant. Being able to contain a blaze if an automation fire is to break out, can help avoid costly disasters.

A front-foot approach

It’s important to ensure existing fire-safe walls are up to the task and that the surrounding environment works in conjunction, rather than against, those panels. In older buildings, highly flammable polystyrene panels create accentuated fire risks. As advancements in fire-safe walls roll out, it’s vital that aging properties are not left behind, so the replacement of these panels is key.

Couple that with the degradation of time, where an aged gasket or compromised door seal can highly affect the efficiency of cold stores. In these situations, the technology must work a lot harder to reach the optimised temperature, which poses an increased risk of a fire breakout. This is especially true if the degradation is extreme enough to necessitate technologies performing well beyond its capabilities to achieve the right temperature. In this regard, the safeguarding properties of firewalls are just as important in stock protection as the cold stores themselves.

Paul Waldeck, Executive Director, Ambrey Baker
Paul Waldeck, Executive Director, Ambrey Baker

There should also be great consideration of the relationship between cold storage facilities and fire-compliant materials. With global warming causing weather extremities throughout the year, the integrity of facilities is tested even further. When the UK faced an unprecedented heat wave in the Summer, 41 properties, including homes and warehouses, were destroyed in London in one day. The effects of global warming are clear to see, so businesses must be shielded from weather extremities at both ends of the scale.

Live integration

The positive is that the integration and installation of firewalls can be straightforward. With factory managers already feeling like they are swimming against a tidal current, pausing operations whilst works are carried out does not seem like a plausible solution. However, experienced construction specialists can adapt their processes to accommodate a factory’s operations, embedding themselves within the live factory, to complete the task with minimal disruption.

It is likely that industry stockpiling will continue into 2023. Supply chain volatility continues to be an issue, therefore the need to safeguard stock and factory personnel with sufficient fire-safety precautions remains a priority. As the industry continues to adopt automation to tackle labour shortages, fire risks will arrive in new shapes and sizes in factories. The presence of firewalls offers some relief to manufacturers during these challenging times.

About the author:

Paul Waldeck is the Executive Director and Food & Drink Construction Specialist Ambrey Baker. He joined in 2020, bringing 30 years of construction, engineering, and business management experience behind him and is helping navigate the business’s growth.

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