Home Office statistics have revealed a worrying increase in the number of fires that start in a tumble dryers at commercial laundries, on-premise laundries or launderettes. The latest figures show the yearly total has risen by 8% to more than one fire every day.

In 1998 the Home Office recorded 342 incidents involving a fire which started in a laundry or launderette tumble dryer. This increased to 370 incidents in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics have been published.

Because many laundries are in the basement of a hotel or nursing home, with no staff in attendance for part of the day, there is a risk that is not being properly addressed by every establishment, especially those without a sprinkler system.

Most incidents of laundry fires are still thought to involve spontaneous combustion of unremoved protein soiling from within cotton goods. The oxidation reaction can start very slowly at quite low temperatures in a stack of warm, clean work. It often only gets up to speed after several hours. This is why flames may not appear until the middle of the night.

One laundry experienced five fires in as many months. All involved kitchen cloths, which were afterwards found to have residual proteins on them. Perspiration and other body oils also contain oxidisable protein which means that terry towelling is equally at risk.

Standard techniques for minimising the risk of spontaneous combustion include: l wash processes that remove every trace of protein soiling l tumble drying cycles that always finish with a cool down l procedures that involve emptying every tunnel dryer at night and discrete stacking in storage and l  installation of a sprinkler system, starting with the finished goods areas.

Full advice on risk management in laundries is contained in the standard guide available from Textile Services Association.

The laundry supplier JLA recently improved matter with a water vapour quench, automatically activated as soon as a fire is detected in a dryer from its new range.

The Sensor Activated Fire Extinguishing (“Safe”) system uses two sensors to detect any change in temperature and activate the water vapour mechanism. The vapour is designed to dowse the flames in seconds before the drum rotates. It exposes and treats all the laundry in the drum to ensure that the fire is completely extinguished. The process takes three minutes. If the fire restarts the vapour mechanism reactivates and the process is repeated.

It has now been law since 1992 for every commercial laundry in the UK (including OPLs) to conduct a sufficient and adequate risk assessment. This should include fire risk and identify the steps being taken to reduce this to an acceptable low level.

Richard Neale