Should You Worry about Factory Fires?

You have enough to worry about in a factory without thinking about fire, right? We like fires in nice controlled conditions like the one pictured here, not in uncontrolled conditions in our workplaces.

Last week, a factory fire in Taiwan claimed 6 lives and another in Bangladesh killed 81. A few years ago in Arkansas, a plastics plant burned for hours before firefighters received an alarm, depleting a 1,000,000 gallon water tank attached to its sprinkler system and leaving dozens of residents jobless. This month is also the anniversary month of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy more than a century ago that led to big changes in factory safety regulations.

Fortunately, factory fires in the United States are now very rare. This is basically because of safety precautions; if we get lax about fire safety, we’ll lose that assurance.

The fire triangle refers to the three elements that must be present for combustion to take place:

  • fuel
  • energy (ignition source)
  • oxygen

Fuel can be any combustible material. In an industrial setting, it’s often dust. Not household dust, but finely granulated metal, paper, cardboard, or fiber, often produced in large quantities in factory settings. Of course, there are also packing materials, gases and solvents, and sometimes combustible building materials.

Ignition sources can include everything from welding or forging operations to cigarettes. Let’s not forget electrical sparks — and let’s definitely not forget to pay attention to loose plugs, worn cables, and shorts.

Oxygen is present in the air we breathe. There are also oxidizing liquids and solids that can react chemically, sometimes under room temperature or slightly heated conditions. Nitrates, bromates, and many more substances can increase the ferocity of fires, make fires and explosions more likely, and even cause spontaneous combustion without ordinary ignition sources.

One of the keys to fire safety is to keep the three corners of the triangle apart. Don’t install servo motors on combustible surfaces. Keep smoking areas well away from areas where there might be a buildup of combustible materials. Don’t store oxidizing materials near heat sources. Provide ventilation where it’s needed, but avoid open spaces between furnaces and storage areas that could allow fire to jump from one to the other.

The bottom line: don’t worry, but definitely be careful. There’s no reason to get casual about factory fire safety.

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