Safety First: Warehouse Fires

by Jennifer A. MacFarlane
Jennifer A. MacFarlane
is a Safety Engineering Technologist at Workplace Safety & Prevention Services as a Senior Account Manager. E-mail Jennifer.

A recent fire in a manufacturer’s facility set off alarm bells for warehouses and distribution centres across Canada. After a spark from a welding torch ignited insulation, all 150 employees were evacuated safely but the building and product inventory were destroyed and nearby homeowners were also evacuated. At considerable cost, the company had to rebuild the business from the ground up.
Your best protection against a similar occurrence is a comprehensive fire safety plan.
Statistical research conducted by the U.S. Fire Protection Research Foundation has identified three leading causes of fires that produce the most property damage:
• Electrical distribution and lighting (10 percent);
• Intentional (10 percent);
• Heating equipment (six percent).
All remaining causes of fire account for less than six per cent each. Among them are vehicles, smoking materials, torches, burners or soldering irons, and chemical reactions.
The research also identifies warehouse locations where the most property damage occurs in a fire.
• Storage areas (34 percent)
• Shipping/receiving or loading docks (13 percent)
• Processing or manufacturing areas (eight percent)
• Storage rooms, tanks and bins (seven percent)

These four locations together account for 62 percent of warehouse fire property damage. According to “Fire Detection in Warehouse Facilities” published by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, smaller amounts of fire damage occur in exterior walls, structural areas, offices, roofs and other areas.*

Protect yourself

Many factors may contribute to the risk of fire in your warehouse, but the 12 preventive measures suggested below can help you minimize this risk.

1. Understand and apply laws and standards governing fire protection in warehouses. Fire safety is governed by a number of laws and codes, including occupational health and safety legislation and regulations, the Canadian Electrical Code, the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS 2015), CSA Standard Z1600 Essentials of Emergency Management & Business Continuity, and local building and fire codes. For instance, the Ontario Fire Code covers such topics as sprinkler systems, aisle width, storage heights, distances between racks, egress, type of fire extinguishers, and more.

2. Carry out a risk assessment. What are your fire hazards (e.g., hot work, electrical, charging stations, arson, etc.)? Who is at risk and how can you control these risks? For example, hot work requires a permit and a hazard analysis before work can proceed. If the configuration of your racking systems and aisles changes frequently, update risk assessments regularly.

3. Eliminate dead-end aisles if possible. During an emergency, these aisles can seriously delay workers from reaching an exit. If you can’t eliminate dead end aisles completely, ensure they are no longer than the maximum length specified in your building code.

4. Know what types of products you are carrying, and advise your local fire department. If you’re storing chemicals, provide the fire department with safety data sheets.

5. Store products properly. Different chemicals require different types of storage units. Understand your obligations under the WHMIS 2015 legislation.

6. Develop and post a fire safety plan. Include an evacuation plan, location of exits, gathering areas and fire extinguishers, frequency of evacuation drills, and emergency contacts. Review the plan regularly, updating as needed.

7. Build fire safety into joint health and safety committee inspections. Properly trained committee members are an invaluable resource.

8. Train all employees on your safety procedures, including when and how to use fire extinguishers. If you employ temporary workers, make sure they understand what to do.

9. Practice good housekeeping. Keep aisles and exits clear, and have a designated area for storing unused pallets and crates.

10. Don’t use electrical heaters or temporary cords, and be sure to maintain your electrical system.

11. Regularly check that detection systems (e.g., smoke, heat and fire detectors) and fire suppression systems (e.g., sprinkler systems, hydrants) are working properly. Thinking of upgrading? Optical beam smoke detectors span larger distances across open spaces. Deluge style automatic fire sprinklers deliver the most water at the fastest speed.

12. Enforce no-smoking rules. Careless smoking is a common cause of fires.