Fire prevention and disaster planning

3 December 2018

2018 looks likely to be a catastrophic year for laundry fire losses. LTC’s Richard Neale look at what every laundry can and should be doing to address this

Action on fire prevention in laundries is needed across the board, from large industrial units processing over 1 million pieces per week, right down to on-premise laundries with a small ground floor operation beneath a multi-story hotel. Insurance premiums are already sky-high and are set to escalate further unless the sector gets a firm grip on the problem. Fortunately, there is much that can still be done to lower the risk significantly. Recent developments in laundry chemistry could help considerably.

In a recent fire (leading to total loss), disaster struck despite the laundry having fire safety checking procedures which would be judged significantly better than the industry norm. In this article we look at the steps which every laundry should be taking urgently, to lower the risk by a factor of at least 10.

Laundry fires commonly start in the middle of the night when premises are largely unattended. This is why so many incidents result in total loss; this demands a sound Disaster Recovery Plan. This can make all the difference between near bankruptcy (insurance pay-outs are rarely swift and often inadequate) and maintaining a viable business for the future. There is much to be done and this article indicates where a start should be made.


Causes of laundry fires

There is a considerable body of opinion that points to spontaneous combustion being the source of a substantial majority of laundry fire ignitions, far outstripping faulty electrics, careless smoking or arson. Because laundries generally have regular electrical checks and are generally compliant with the IEEE Regulations current edition, ignition because of faulty electrics is at a low level. For similar reasons, careless smoking and arson are believed to be low down on the list of probabilities. The dominant culprit is thought by many to be spontaneous combustion, because of the frequency of fires during the night at unattended premises and because of the many links to ignition of textiles in dryers or in warm piles in the clean goods area. This theory is strongly supported by the seat of many fires being found to involve oily soiled textiles from spa treatments, hairdressers and restaurant kitchens. For these reasons this article will concentrate on minimising and eliminating the primary causes of spontaneous combustion.

Spontaneous combustion is made possible by inadequate washing, often made worse by incorrect classification. Ideally, textiles which need complete removal of oily soiling should be classified separately. If any fatty or oily substance is left on the textile after the wash process, then it will tend to oxidise by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. This reaction is exothermic; it gives off heat and with elevated temperatures in drying, the combined effect can produce enough heat to reach the auto-ignition temperature of the textile (the lowest temperature at which it spontaneously ignites in normal atmosphere without an external source of ignition, such as a flame or spark). This temperature can be quite low, depending on the residual soiling left behind. This problem used to be addressed in the best laundries by increasing the detergent dosage for the ‘at risk’ classifications, but this is difficult to achieve economically in a tunnel washer. The modern solution is to dose the batch with a small amount of the correct emulsifier, which works well and ensures economic removal. Major detergent suppliers now have the right formulations to achieve this.

The HLB (hydrophilic lipophilic balance) ratio of the emulsifier is critical to success. Industrial engineering oils probably have an HLB value around 14 to 16. Restaurant kitchen oils and fats are likely to be slightly lower, in the range 9 to 13. Highly refined essential oils used in spa products tend to be even lower, right down into the range 6 to 8. Essential oils will not come away with an emulsifier targeted at engineering oils and greases, so using one of these for them is a waste of time and money.

The lowest cost option to deal with all three groups of oils is to use the appropriate narrow range emulsifier for each classification. Even with the contra-flow in a tunnel, the emulsifier is designed to cling to the batch into which it is dosed, so it is carried forward with the textiles and will still work well on the target batch.

A simpler alternative to using three emulsifiers is to employ one broad-range product capable of dealing with all three ranges of HLB values. This tackles the fire-risk at source and effectively eliminates this if the wash process design is done correctly. This is what every laundry should now be doing, while the memory of the latest fire is fresh in the mind. Following laundry best-practice to ensure effective cooldown of fully-dried work and fitting sprinkler systems in the areas most at risk then follows from ensuring good washing, but these are no substitute for eliminating the problem at source in the wash process itself. This is a problem primarily concerned with washing, not drying or cooling.


Prevent spontaneous combustion

The following checklist is design to help the modern laundry manager. These simple checks will tell you when you are moving into the danger area before you burn the place down:  SEE TABLE BELOW.


Prevention and procedures

In the event of a major conflagration, with injuries or fatalities or total loss of premises, stock and equipment, you may well be questioned by the Chief Fire Officer and ultimately under caution by an official from the Health and Safety Executive. It would pay to have your answers to the following queries ready:

1. Have your operatives all received fire safety training? When was the last refresher?

2. Do all of your operatives know how to raise the fire alarm, including on any evening or night shift, and when and how to contact the Fire Service if necessary?

3. Which of your operatives is permitted to use a fire extinguisher and have they had relevant training from the local Fire Service or other competent source?

4. Do all of your operatives know what the fire alarm sounds like and the evacuation procedure to be followed?

5. When was your evacuation procedure last rehearsed? How long ‘to last person out’?

6. Is your first aiders’ training up to date and are your first ad kits complete?

Not having the right answers ready can be very embarrassing; it pays to be prepared.


Disaster recovery

The aftermath of a laundry fire often involves the management team, in shock, dashing around like headless chickens, having been aroused from their beds in the middle of the night. Only then does the realisation dawn that having a Disaster Recovery Plan would have enabled each member of the team to get on with their pre-agreed roles independently, in order to contact customers, arrange temporary linen and get the business at least back onto its knees, if not feet! The following duties/functions need to be pre-delegated by job title and the inevitable questions considered and answered as far as is possible:

1. Liaison with Fire Service for making the site safe and accessing clean textile stocks and useable equipment (probably laundry engineer with laundry manager).

2. Notification to insurers and loss assessment and immediate financial requirements (probably general manager).

3. Reservation of temporary office accommodation locally (probably general or laundry manager).

4. Restoration of computing power – broadband, laptops, server, data recovery from back-ups, packing notes for customer deliveries (probably despatch manager or PA to general manager).

5. Restoration of financial control – on-line banking, restoration from back-up of cash day book, sales ledger, purchase ledger (probably financial controller or general manager).

6. Restoration of communication – landline phone and central email. Post re-direction to temporary office (probably one of the office team).

7. Notification of staff, instructions to supervisors and answering staff queries (probably staff manager or general manager).

8. Securing temporary stock and production facilities (probably laundry manager or customer service manager).

9. Liaison with customers prioritisation (probably customer service manager) and individual contact (customer service team).

From the above it will have become apparent that in the event of total loss there is no office, no landlines, no reference set of names and phone numbers, nowhere to sit, no coffee-maker – the list goes on.

All the contact details, modes of contact and the Disaster Recovery Plan have to be stored externally to the office and instantly accessible to the entire disaster recovery team. Cloud storage and mobile phones will probably be central to this, with email and Cloud access set up on every team mobile. All of this needs to be pre-planned and basic preparation made so that everyone knows their role and authority.




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