Beware spontaneous combustion24 May 2022
Fire still remains a major threat to any High Street cleaning business and in spite of hikes in insurance rates, warnings in the trade press and by the Guild of Cleaners & Launderers over recent years the incidence of fire has not diminished with currently around two fires a week in the UK alone. The cost of even a relatively small, contained fire should not be underestimated. If customers’ clothes are smoke damaged or burned it may result in temporary closure of the business the impact of which on customer confidence can lead to a loss of turnover that may result in permanent closure. Even if a business recovers from a fire it may well find that in future renewal rates for fire cover are unaffordable.
Many High Street units have residential accommodation above the shop and therefore any fire will inevitably put the occupants at risk of their lives particularly as spontaneous combustion often takes place at night and in the early hours when the shop is closed. Cleaners using perchloroethylene solvent should also be aware that under the influence of red heat and fire, the solvent breaks down to form an acid and a highly toxic gas (phosgene), further increasing the risk to occupants of adjacent properties and shop staff alike. Obviously, hydrocarbon and other flammable solvents will also increase fire risks.
The main risk arises from tumble-dried items being left in a dryer or unloaded into a barrow and left unattended. The warm textiles may then start to build up heat, eventually reaching a temperature when they self ignite and burst into flame. The risk of spontaneous combustion is greatly increased with items such as chefs wear, butchers aprons and kitchen and oven cloths which may contain greasy residues due incomplete removal in washing or inadequate rinsing, once ignited these residues provide an additional fuel source increasing the intensity and severity of the fire.
Items should not be allowed to be over-dried in tumble dryers and should be removed immediately at the end of the drying cycle and spaced out over the side of a barrow, for example, to air or be hung up. Cleaners should be aware that the risk of auto-ignition also extends to packing insofar as newly-finished laundry or drycleaned household items should be allowed to fully cool before being packed and stored.
The production process produces a large amount of lint much of which is cellulosic in nature and highly flammable, therefore a good housekeeping regime is essential and will go a long way towards reducing the fire risk. In the event of a fire, if lint has been allowed to accumulate on pipework on lagging and production equipment, it will provide a flame path promoting the spread of fire instantly to other areas and exponentially increasing the risk of a major fire and catastrophic damage. Attention also needs to be paid to the regular cleaning of tumbler dryer lint screens, ducts, heating coils and electric motors and the area surrounding them. When dryers are replaced it is strongly recommended that the new equipment with a built in automatic extinguisher system is purchased.
The very high incidence of fires is inextricably linked to a woeful lack of training and ignorance on the part of staff. Health & Safety training including fire awareness and the causes of spontaneous combustion is fundamental to the safety of staff, customers and the public. In the event of a fire leading to injury or death, failure to ensure their safety due to lack of or inadequate training leaves owners and managers open to prosecution under the UK 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act.