Measure, manage and mitigate your property fire risks

05 November 2018

Food factory fires tend to be catastrophic and in 99% of cases a sprinkler system is the most effective form of defence. If you don’t have one, are you simply accepting that a fire will put your factory out of action?

This is, perhaps, overly simplistic, but it does demonstrate that certain risks have tried and tested solutions. The most effective might be expensive and/or difficult to implement, but they work.

Fire exposures in the food and agri sector

Food and agri factories generally have a high combustible loading. Full of flammable packaging materials, they also house commercial ovens, dryers, fryers, and cookers. There are then environmental control and electrical systems, as well as refrigeration and freezer units that add to the hazard.

In addition to being potentially explosive, the ammonia in many refrigeration systems is also highly toxic. Where there’s a leak this adds another layer of complexity to an already difficult situation. 

Many buildings are constructed from insulated metal panels and if these catch fire they’re virtually impossible to extinguish.

So just how do you prevent a fire from starting and how can you minimise its impact if it does?

Preparing for the predictable

The good news is that we know how fires start and how they spread. The challenge, therefore, is to take that knowledge and turn it into meaningful, preventative action.

The first step is to understand your own risk. Where are you most exposed? Are your buildings made from combustible construction materials – in particular, insulated metal panels?

How do you manage ignition sources? How do you mitigate the risk from cooking and heating processes? Have you assessed and addressed the risk from high combustible areas, such as packaging and/or ingredient stores?

Too often companies don’t have the answers to these questions. In three out of five risk surveys, for example, there are serious deficiencies in how companies manage hot works. Similarly, many have informal and patchy processes in place when it comes to monitoring and maintaining their electrical systems.

When small sparks can create catastrophic outcomes, this is simply asking for trouble.

Expert help is on hand

An insurance engineer can survey your site, detail your exposures, highlighting improvement measures and enable you to start measuring your risk management and mitigation efforts.

Such a survey will highlight actions that create quick and immediate benefits, as well as those that are longer term projects.

For example, identifying damage to insulated metal panels means they can be repaired immediately, at relatively low cost, to significantly reduce the risk to your factory.

Good housekeeping is not expensive, but it will make a marked improvement to your exposure. Is packaging stored properly and litter picked up? Is dust from ingredients such as flour, sugar and grain kept to a minimum?

If not, an initial fire or explosion can dislodge dust in the rafters, for example, to create a combustible cloud of microscopic particles. The resulting, secondary explosion is often the one that creates the most damage.

Thermal imaging electrical wiring and fuse boxes is not expensive and will immediately highlight weak links and necessary maintenance.

Such surveys will also ensure existing loss mitigation measures actually work. All too often faulty smoke alarms or sprinkler systems make it too easy for fire to take hold and destroy a property.

Take action

Many food and agri businesses under-utilise the knowledge and experience that insurance engineers have.

Working in partnership you can get the knowledge you need to understand how well your properties are currently protected against the risks they face. You can then put a strategy in place to manage their risk profile going forward.

Fires are predictable and we understand how they start and how they spread. Thus, we can prevent them. If you turn this knowledge into practical action, you’ll stop your business going up in smoke.

Property protection takeaways:

  • Sprinkler systems are effective in 99% of factory fires
  • If you can’t measure your risk, you can’t manage it
  • Insurance engineers have a lot of experience and expertise – use it to the benefit of your business.

Thank you to Steve Cheung from QBE, for his contributions to this article.

For further information please contact Simon Lusher, Head of JLT's Food and Agri Practice on +44 (0)20 3394 0467