FOOD INDUSTRY FIRES
While progress has been made the world over, combustible sandwich panels and inadequate sprinklers are still making toast out of some of Europe’s food factories.
On Easter Monday of 2016, fire ravaged a Wiesenhof facility in Lohne, Germany. Wiesenhof, not an FM Global-insured, is one of Europe’s largest processors of poultry. In the aftermath, production ceased, many of the 1,200 employees were laid off, and the processing of 370,000 birds per day had to be rerouted to sister factories. With nearly 183,000 square feet (17,000 square meters) of fire damage, the loss is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The fire underscored a trend in the food industry, and it could not have come at a worse time for Wiesenhof. A year prior to the event, a similar fire destroyed their Bogen plant.
The issue is certainly not exclusive to Wiesenhof. In February, a fire destroyed the Paderborn pork and beef processing plant of Westfleisch in Germany, causing damage reportedly also in the hundreds of millions of dollars and putting the jobs of 157 employees at risk. In 2014, the huge ham processing plant of Campofrío in Burgos, Spain, was destroyed by fire, threatening that town’s local economy. Nearly 1,000 workers had depended on this factory, which is expected to reopen in late 2016. A fire also destroyed one of Europe’s largest potato processing factories—Clarebout Potatoes—at Nieuwkerke in Belgium in 2015.
Fuel to the fire
All these factories shared two detrimental features—that could surely lead to fire damage of this scale. First, they all lacked automatic fire sprinklers, which may have extinguished the fires in the early stages or at least helped control them until fire services arrived. Second, metal sandwich panels, insulated with expanded plastics of inferior fire resistance, were used in every instance. This material contributed to the rapid, extensive spread of fire, even to adjacent buildings. Plastic sandwich panels make manual firefighting very hazardous, due to the dense black smoke they emit, so it is no surprise that firefighters attack from the outside.
Though no fatalities were reported in the above incidents, firefighters have lost their lives in fires involving plastics embedded in the construction of food factories. The deaths of firefighters in the United Kingdom in 1993 at a poultry factory and then again at a vegetable processing plant in 2007 has led that government to put a spotlight on the hazards associated with this type of construction.
Learning from the past
The danger posed by the use of plastic sandwich panels in food factories dates back at least 25 years. Following a spate of large fires, factories with this combustible construction—and no automatic sprinkler protection—had difficulty finding insurance at a reasonable cost. Insurance companies were not eager to cover a business with such characteristics. After suffering a series of fires a decade ago, Danish Crown, Europe’s largest pig slaughterer, watched insurance premiums triple and was forced to take on a sizable deductible. As a result, the company assumed proactive risk management, investing in fire sprinklers and prohibiting the use of plastics in construction unless necessary, such as for coldroom insulation.
Average cost of damage
According to a study of food factory fires conducted by FM Global, there were 88 fires over a five-year period (2010 – 2014). For a factory with a fully functional sprinkler system, the average damage was US$638,000; for factories lacking sprinklers, or where protection was inadequate, the damage was US$9.3 million, nearly 15 times more.
ALL THESE FACTORIES SHARED TWO DETRIMENTAL FEATURES—THAT COULD SURELY LEAD TO FIRE DAMAGE OF THIS SCALE. THEY ALL LACKED AUTOMATIC SPRINKLERS AND THEY ALL POSSESSED COMBUSTIBLE METAL SANDWICH PANELS.
Still, property damage is not the sole concern. It takes more than 18 months to rebuild a food factory, and in many cases, a decision is made not to rebuild, but to relocate a plant’s function to another facility, out of the region or even out of the country.
The presence of a sprinkler system, on the other hand, leads to a markedly different outcome—as was the case in the 2015 fire at Rank Hovis bread mill in Manchester, U.K. There, the sprinklers operated and helped extinguish the fire. The mill was running the next day—a common scenario in factories where sprinklers operate to control a fire.
Replace sandwich panels
Insurance companies and governments alike advise that combustible sandwich panels be replaced or automatic sprinklers be provided. But such propositions are regarded as enormous and very expensive, and both have rarely been achieved through a retrofit. Replacing panels while not providing automatic sprinklers, however, means the fire might well be smaller but will still likely involve an entire compartment—and in some factories, that could mean lengthy downtime. On the other hand, providing sprinklers and not changing the panels should result in a scenario where the fire is limited to a small area. Smoke damage may be more severe, but the fire will nonetheless be contained.
Improved codes and sprinkler protection
“Working closely with our operations in Frankfurt, our international codes and standards staff is assessing the frequency and economic impact of these trends as drivers for improvements in policy and practice for resilience,” says Louis Gritzo, Ph.D., head of FM Global’s research division. Adding sprinkler protection to a large food factory comes at a cost. Yet, companies that suffered a major fire do choose to install them. For example, after the fire at La Lorraine bakery in Belgium in 2008, the plant was rebuilt with sprinklers. And large corporations, such as Danish Crown, have retrofitted sprinklers in factories untouched by fire.
Since these retrofits can be planned and implemented to suit a company’s capital profile, the question is: Can you afford not to sprinkler-protect a large food factory?
For more information, refer to FM Global Property Loss Prevention Data Sheet 1-57, “Plastics in Construction.”
By Bruce Bromage, senior consultant of the international codes and standards group at FM Global.