Taking steps to minimise the risk of laundry fires

6 August 2015

Laundry fires should no longer be regarded as an inevitable high risk. They should now be seen a symptom of problems with processes and procedures, says Richard Neale of LTC Worldwide

Many laundries fail to realise that the risk of fire is a serious one for this industry. If a laundry fire does make the news it is often dismissed as one company's bad luck that has no relevance to other laundries

This month's article examines the current situation regarding fire risk and lists the proven techniques for reducing this to a very low level.
The main problem is one of ignorance and inertia. Laundries that take steps to reduce the possible causes can substantially reduce the risk

Causes of laundry fires
Spontaneous combustion remains the principal culprit for unexplained laundry fires. Many refer to fires from this cause as "haystack" fires (even though haystacks have largely disappeared from the English countryside).
Such fires often occur between 1am and 4am and are usually sited in a loaded dryer or in the packing area. The debris they produce (if there is anything left to examine) usually indicates that the fire started in the centre of a pile of clean textiles. The ignited textiles have been scattered creating a wide initial area of flame.
Spontaneous combustion results from a combination of certain contaminants and poor washing. For example, if engineers' overalls are not washed so as to be completely free of flammable, oxidisable oils then they become a potential danger point.
The oily residues can start to combine chemically with oxygen in the air, causing an exothermic (heat producing) reaction.
This heat warms the surrounding texiles and the reaction speeds up a little. As the heat increases, the temperature in the textiles start to rise exponentially.
Because the initial temperature of the textiles was low, it will be several hours before the auto-ignition point is reached (which is why fires break out in the middle of the night).
Textiles with oily residues have a much lower ignition point than clean ones. (Without oxidisable soiling, there would be no reaction and the textiles would not warm up). When the temperature gets up to around
250 - 300C, the textiles ignite spontaneously and the flaming debris then makes a major fire inevitable.
The risks of such contamination are many. Laundries handling garments from chicken processing plants have to contend with chicken fats. If the wash fails to remove these, the final drying stage in the tunnel finisher provides the ideal conditions for a fat fire. The garments will emerge either still in flames or irrevocably charred. The risks can increase markedly if the processors are using certain types of degreaser for cleaning the factory.
Renters of hospitality textiles will handle towels and sheets with spa oil staining. Special procedures are needed to remove this difficult soiling and if it is not removed thoroughly, the towels will have an overpowering odour of rancid oils when they are removed from the dryer.
Unless the wash process is adjusted the odour will get worse and the fire risk increase with every wash.
Cigarettes that are dropped without being properly extinguished, lighters or matches left unchecked in matches represent the risk from smokers. Although these may lead to an immediate fire, it can usually be dealt with quite effectively using the laundry hosepipe or portable extinguishers.
Some time ago, one launderer set up an experiment in which garments with matches and lighters in the pockets were deliberately finished in a gas-fired tunnel, with all available members of staff standing by the exit with fire extinguishers.
The staff were horrified by the fire's ferocity, and even more so as they only just managed to extinguish it despite being very well prepared. Such experiments are not recommended!
Electrical faults continue to be a major source of fire countrywide, but they pale into insignificance alongside spontaneous combustion and smokers' fires.
Electrical fires are well controlled by routine inspections and by implementation of the IEE Wiring Regulations. The same is true of arson and other malicious consequences of break-ins.

Early warning signs
Smoke or even a blue haze coming from the top of the tunnel finisher is a clear warning sign of increased risk.
The smoke or haze is oil and fat that has survived the wash and is now being evaporated by the re-circulating heat in the tunnel.
This is often accompanied by chemical transformation to produce foul and rancid stenches, which gives an even more obvious warning.
A greasy handle on items being unloaded from the finisher or the tumbler is a sure sign of poor washing. Rancid odours confirm that it is time to investigate.

Reacting to fire risk
Insurers do not regard smoke alarms or sprinklers as ways to avoid fires. They are warning devices that allow the laundry time to react to prevent major damage.
A smoke alarm is of little use in an empty laundry.
If a laundry wants to invest in reducing the consequences of fire rather than preventing the risk, then the best choice is an automatic tunnel sprinkler with thermal link and deadweight to open a drenching valve for the finisher.

Preventing laundry fires
Customer contact is the first step in fire prevention. The customer service team needs to know what kind of soiling - cleaning fluids, spa oils, meat fats or engineer oils - is likely to be on the textiles that customers send in. Printers' wipers, which are in a class of their own, are unlikely to be accepted but cleaning fluids and essential oils are just as deadly.
Consulting the detergent supplier is the next step. Most suppliers have excellent emulsifiers for aiding the removal of potentially flammable contaminants to avoid excessive detergent costs.
These special ingredients need to be matched to the oils or fats to be removed. The critical factor is the hydrophilic lipophilic balance (the HLB value) of the emulsifier, which must be matched to the HLB value of the contaminant.
Failure to do this is the main reason for the failure of an emulsifier to do the job intended.
Typically engineers' oils might have an HLB value of 14 - 16, chicken fats around 11 - 13 and essential oils 7 - 9. Matching the contaminant to the emulsifier is a task for a detergent supplier who is an expert in this area.
However, when the correct match is achieved the emulsifier can have a dramatic effect. The blue haze disappears, the spa towels suddenly smell sweet and the hidden fire risks are reduced by about one hundred-fold.
It was once thought that for the emulsifier to be truly effective, risky work should be processed in a washer-extractor but the leading detergent suppliers have now demonstrated that success can also be achieved in a tunnel washer. This is a great step forward.

Modifications to risk assessments
All laundries are required to have a comprehensive set of risk assessments to satisfy health and safety legislation. Most laundries will need to revise these to cover the ways of recognising and dealing with enhanced fire risk (with improved wash processes, risk symptom recognition and so on).
There is now no reason why fire risk should not be reduced to a very low level and the owner or general manager and the health and safety officer should be proactive in leading efforts to do so.

The advice given here will only be effective if all the team members are trained to recognise and react to the symptoms. It should not take another laundry fire to get the basic principles across.
The training is best done in small groups in 20 minute sessions with refreshers every six months or so. The objective is to get across the tremendous improvements that can be achieved in fire prevention and the role that each member of the team has to play.
Emptying the dryers promptly and certainly every night is still vital, but this becomes secondary now that the industry has the means of preventing most laundry fires by good washing, using the latest technology.

COST TO INDUSTRY: In each of the last 20 years there have been typically two major laundry fires, which have reduced premises to ash and cost the insurers upwards of £5m. In addition there are typically over 3,000 minor laundry-related fires reported to the Home Office, many of them in tumble dryers

Laundry fires

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