Extinguishing the risk of fire-related downtime


Fire risk is a very real concern for many cleanroom sectors. Paul Morley, MD, Chalcroft Construction, looks at common causes of facility fires and discusses how cleanroom design plays an integral role in localising damage and containing fire

With warehouse fires costing the UK economy around £232m a year (BRE Global), mitigating fire risk is a key concern for many industries. The outbreak of a fire could result in costly damage to process plants and production facilities, operation downtime and loss of stock. The impact of fire damage cannot be contained to just the organisation either. As well as huge commercial losses, it can also cause multiple job losses and affect the wider supply chain.

Fire is recognised as the leading cause of commercial property damage and disruption, and its impact on, for example, the pharmaceutical sector can be devastating, as such facilities rely on round-the-clock production with little room for unscheduled downtime. In addition to the million pounds worth of damage, it can also seriously affect the reputation of a brand, and for those producing a high commodity product it could see suppliers move to competitors if their orders cannot be fulfilled, or worse still result in drug shortages.

The cleanroom is the centre of production for many pharmaceutical facilities, which means a robust fire prevention strategy is essential to avoid disruption to operations and downtime. However, electrical, utility and process equipment faults and the presence of flammable and explosive cleaning materials, combined with the constant supply of airflow and high levels of oxygen make the operational areas extremely flammable and allow fire to spread rapidly.

For cleanrooms, even the smallest fire can cause millions of pounds of damage and disrupt operations, as the release of toxic substances and contamination can affect the sterility of controlled areas.

In 2011, a fire spread through a warehouse at a pharmaceutical company in Leicestershire, destroying the entire site. Following the fire, a decision was made not to rebuild the site due to costs, time and regulatory complexities and as a result 150 employees were made redundant. However, the fire crews sent to tackle the blaze recognised that if appropriate fire prevention methods had been considered, such as the installation of sprinklers, the building would have been saved. While this is a worst case example, fire risk poses a very real danger for many pharmaceutical organisations and without the correct procedures in place, fire damage can end operation for some companies.

Food and beverage manufacturing is another industry that holds parallels with the pharmaceutical sector, and the considerations during the construction of cleanrooms are very similar. A series of well-known food manufacturers were affected by fire last year, including Rank Hovis, 2 Sisters and Dairy Crest, which all experienced damage at their facilities caused by fire; however, good fire prevention strategies helped mitigate the damage and production downtime was kept to a minimum. Some organisations weren’t as fortunate. A fish processing plant in Peterhead was hit by a major fire in January last year and it took nearly 12 months for the site to become fully operational again, resulting in millions of pounds of lost profit.

Legislation compliance

Fire safety requirements for cleanroom construction projects will initially be in line with requests of the client and compliance with legislation, but generally the client’s insurers will have stipulations over and above all else – which means early dialogue with insurers is key. As each building is used for its own unique purpose, fire safety considerations during construction will inevitably differ. The number of people populating the building and the size and location of the site can all influence the construction of a building, and play an important role in fire prevention strategies.

Fire prevention considerations need to be addressed early in the design stages

Fire prevention considerations need to be addressed early in the design stages

While the layout of a cleanroom can help encourage efficiency and improve workflow, the design of a building is crucial to fire prevention. If fire prevention strategies fail, containment measures can be the difference between minor damage and multi-million pound destruction. A series of high-profile cases in the 1990s identified the role a building’s composition played in mitigating and containing the spread of fire. While steps were taken to improve facility design, last year’s series of fires demonstrates that more needs to be done, and preventing ignition and the early spread of fire is critical if valuable back-up systems and maintenance fail.

Firewalls between chambers and production areas can offer varying lengths of resistance to fire, ranging from two to four hours, and can be made from a number of materials including concrete, which is often used for self-supporting walls. Firewalls can also be constructed from insulated panels and boarded construction, and differ in composition and width in comparison with standard panels. Typically in cleanroom production, mechanical air handling applications such as ventilation and duct units are installed to ensure a constant flow of clean air, but as they present a heightened fire safety risk, additional fire attenuation must be considered.

If fire prevention strategies fail, containment measures can be the difference between minor damage and multi-million pound destruction.

Sectioning key areas for fire protection can provide a valuable back-up and help reduce the risk of losing an entire production facility or thousands of pounds worth of stock. Fire compartmentation is a method that sees each room sectioned using fire-resistant panelling, helping to isolate key areas and prevent the spread of fire from one part of the building to another. This is ideal for cleanroom areas that are the most likely to be at risk, and can reduce the spread of fire to high value areas, such as the warehouse stock holding or office areas.

Recognising the importance that building design and construction plays in meeting safety requirements, Ardo UK, a frozen fruit and vegetable specialist, approached Chalcroft to build a new high-care cold store facility as an extension to the existing factory. The frozen fruit and vegetable producer had previously worked with the organisation in 2009 to build a cold store and packing hall.

In line with specifications set by the company’s insurers, Chalcroft’s expertise in high-care construction enabled it to provide a practical solution to help Ardo UK meet stringent health and safety requirements and offer solutions that could prevent risks such as fire. A firewall between the new and existing phases was constructed, allowing the business to remain operational if any fire should start in an area of the facility and ensure it could be contained without spreading to adjacent phases. Outside, the cladding was extended to provide a seamless finish and ensure the building was in keeping with its external environment.

Detection systems

Adequate fire detection systems or automatic fire suppression components such as sprinklers and gas suppression can help minimise fire damage in industrial buildings. Often specified by the insurer to minimise damage, they can be installed at roof level with different heads to cater for various distances; more commonly they are fitted to the racking systems themselves, offering protection at various levels, which is ideal for cleanrooms where smoke may get dragged along with the airflow. The automation of a sprinkler ensures it is released directly over a fire, isolating damage in that area.

Working in partnership with a construction specialist will help ensure all issues and risks are identified and the building meets with all appropriate regulations and the stipulations of insurers. Incorporating the right properties within the design means manufacturers can ease their concerns when contemplating a possible fire outbreak. Design companies such as Chalcroft have the expertise and vision to ensure downtime is minimised and fire outbreaks cause less damage.

While preventing fire is already a major consideration for the pharmaceutical industry, which uses operations that are highly susceptible to fire, those responsible for health and safety should not only look at ways that fires could be prevented but also have a contingency plan in place to ensure that fires can be contained and their coverage maintained.

The design and construction of cleanrooms play an integral role in the effectiveness of the building in the future, and by considering all possible risks and hazards such as fire, steps can be taken to reduce and alleviate the effects if the worst should happen.