FEBRUARY 2009

Fire prevention at recycling facilities
Write the Author

Last November a paper recycling facility in Montreal, Canada went up in flames and a few days later, an off-island tire recycling plant was also subject to a devastating fire. In both cases, the local media reported that the facilities were the targets of complaints, specifically that fire safety and other protective measures had not been followed.

On October 18 a fire destroyed the 32,000 square-foot paper and plastic recycling facility run by The Grossman Group, Inc. (Westerville, Ohio). The building was owned by the City of Columbus, sub-leased to the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO), and subleased again to The Grossman Group.

The facility, equipment and approximately 750 tons of paper and plastic were completely destroyed by the fire. Reports indicate that fire fighters were hampered by a lack of sufficient water to the interior water hoses.

“The investigation into why there was low water pressure inside the building and no water from a primary outside hydrant is continuing,” says Steve Grossman, president of The Grossman Group, which operates several paper recycling facilities. “As to safety within our Columbus operation, as well as our other interests, we made it a point to bring OSHA in for their observations and any recommendations. Some people fear having impromptu inspections, but we welcomed their input because we wanted to eliminate any safety issues within our areas of responsibility.

“Our Columbus facility was not sprinkled, something that would be a must if one is upgrading their building or building today,” he added. “We did have two fire standpipes and hoses, as well as multiple fire extinguishers, both inside and outside the building. Nightly cleanups, blowing dust off of the equipment, rafters, wall beams, etc. and preventative maintenance are all excellent measures that should be common place in helping to maintain a safe work environment.”

The fire started from a spark from a cutting torch that was being used to do work on a piece of machinery. The area completely surrounding the work was clear of any paper or debris, several buckets of water were on standby and multiple fire extinguishers were present.

Grossman said two or three maintenance subcontractors were working in the area when the fire began. They did not notice when a spark flew approximately 20 feet into a paper pile. “By the time they noticed there was smoke and flames,” he explains. “They turned on one of the hoses and there was a short spurt of water, then almost nothing. When the fire department arrived and hooked a hose to an outside hydrant there was simply no water.” Grossman said the issues pertaining to the water are under investigation and that water flow issues are the responsibility of the landlord and owner. He added that when the company took over the facility, it advised the landlord that one of the outside hydrants was not operational and that the inside water standpipes were not insulated, which caused freezing and prevented water flow.

“The outside hydrant was eventually repaired,” says Grossman, “however we are simply unaware of any water tests the landlord may or may not have performed.” He added that the fire was totally devastating, resulting in the loss of the leased building, an entire inventory and the vast majority of equipment and tools.

“Our insurance company has been extremely responsive,” he states. “However, due to the enormity of this potential loss, we have hired experts with a solid track record of working with the insurance company to assure total fairness on everyone’s part. I have no idea what this may do to our rates or if it would have any effect on anyone else.

A key lesson that Grossman has learned from this experience is to “never assume that you or your management team can prepare for any type of a devastating situation with your facility.

“Go the extra step and bring in the authorities, the City, etc., and have everything inspected,” he advises. “Use all of the tools that may be available and question anything that may not look perfect.”

Hartsville, South Carolina-based Sonoco Products Co. operates many recycling (paper, plastics and other materials) and manufacturing facilities all over the world. According to Sammy King, Sonoco’s plant protection manager and fire security/EMS chief, preventing fires and other disasters that could jeopardize lives and destroy entire facilities is critical.

“Safety is a top priority at Sonoco,” he says. “We have a good insurance company that does inspections at all the plants, all of our plants have sprinkler systems and they are inspected, and our employees are trained.”

The insurer works with Sonoco’s Corporate Risk Management Group and following fire prevention inspections, issues a report for management to review and act upon.

“If the recommendations are considered a priority and we don’t act, it can affect our rates,” says King, who has 45.5 years of safety prevention experience.

Robin Montgomery, Sonoco’s manager, corporate communications, said that the company has developed a positive relationship with its insurer by communicating openly and being receptive to feedback. He added that a good relationship between company and insurer is a prudent step for all businesses.

“Through the years we’ve had some fires, but most of those have been small,” says King. “There were a couple that were larger in size, but those were contained quickly.”

King said that in his experience, fork trucks and spontaneous combustion are the two of the most common ignition sources in waste paper operations. Spontaneous combustion fires usually occur when the heat buildup inside a bale causes smoldering. When the bale is exposed to more oxygen or air, it can ignite into a fire.

“We’ve seen bales in rail cars and trucks that started burning as soon as we opened the doors. All they needed for the fire to take off was more exposure to oxygen,” says King.

The Hartsville plant has a fully staffed volunteer interior structure fire fighting unit. All the fire fighters have taken four-day courses at the South Carolina Fire Academy and have received certification in the industrial firefighting program. They are sent back for re-certification annually.

The force is well stocked with modern equipment, including bunker gear, air packs, protective equipment and fire pumps. The plant has 52 hydrants and hydrant houses and a new alarm system.

King says that all Sonoco plant managers maintain relationships with emergency responders, including local fire departments and law enforcement.

“This is a big deal for us in Hartsville,” he says. “I have a close working relationship with the Hartsville and Darlington County fire departments. We make it a point to collaborate with them on our training activities and we make sure they are familiar with our facilities.”

Montgomery says that Sonoco also communicates regularly with industry peers to share best practices and information pertaining to fire prevention. He said this communication comes in the form of face-to-face visits, phone calls and industry conferences.

Like The Grossman Group, Sonoco welcomes inspections and working with people who can improve safety.

King says Sonoco provides the necessary resources to annually test equipment and ensure that it functions. He also says the Company works hard to train and educate its employees regarding fire safety and prevention. This training includes a review of emergency plans and visual inspections of hydrants, fire doors and fire fighting equipment.

“You need to know that it works and where it is,” he said. King explained that should a fire occur and operations are shut down temporarily, Sonoco has contingency plans to divert material and operations to other plants.

“The type of emergency, along with its size and scale, dictates what we do,” he says. “We have several plans in place so that we can be ready to respond no matter what the emergency.”