Adair Lewis analyses seven years of large loss fire survey data for the chemical sector of the industrial processing industry and draws out valuable lessons.

IN MANY people’s minds, the words ‘chemistry’ and ‘chemicals’ are synonymous with danger, thus it would be expected that there are numerous large fi res in this industry and that these incidents cause vast and costly amounts of damage. However, the number of fires is relatively low and insurers may be relieved that the cost is not as great as they may have expected.

The findings of the latest survey of large loss fi res in the chemical sector of the industrial processing industry (January 2009 to December 2015 – 2,555 days) indicate that just 20 large loss fi res occurred in this period, compared with a total of 681 in the industrial processing industry as a whole (just 2.9% of this total). This equates to 0.46% of all large loss fires.

The proportions of the fi res in the chemical industry that are accidental, deliberate and unknown follow much the same pattern as those for industrial processing as a whole, but the times of day when the events happen are very different. While from midnight until midday the proportions of fi res in the chemical industry are much the same as for industrial processing, in the afternoon there is a very marked difference, with just 3.9% of large loss fires in the chemical industry occurring between midday and 18:00, compared with 19.0% of the fires in industrial processing. There are also proportionally fewer in the evening, but a significant proportion (46.4%) of fi res where the time of origin was not determined. The reason for fewer fires occurring in the afternoon and evening is not at all clear.

Another surprise, at first sight, is the low number of problems experienced by the fi re service when responding to emergency calls from the chemical industry. There were no problems at all with access, water supplies or other resources, but 13 incidents in which the presence of acetylene was problematic (65% of the total). The presence of acetylene cylinders therefore remains a serious problem for the chemical industry.

In terms of cost, fires in the chemical sector accounted for 0.84% of the costs of fires in the industrial processing industry as a whole, and the average fire in the chemical industry cost a little over a quarter (28.5%) of the average industrial processing fi re. This level of losses probably reflects the effectiveness of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) and the work of health and safety staff. The chemical industry is perceived to be dangerous and so people appear to respect the mitigation measures. In other industries, if the dangers were to be more apparent, perhaps the appropriate safe working practices would be followed more diligently.

Good practice

A suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment should be undertaken for all premises to which the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 [or equivalent legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland] applies. In chemical industry premises, an assessment is also likely to be required in accordance with the DSEAR. One of the key elements of the DSEAR assessment is to identify any hazard zones in the workplace. When undertaking or reviewing the fire risk assessment, careful consideration should be given to the likelihood of arson and the provision of suitable security measures to reduce the occurrence of deliberate fire raising, both from trespassers and people with legitimate access to the site.

The risk assessments should be subject to periodic review, including at the time when any change to the nature of the hazardous materials is being contemplated, or the numbers of gas cylinders (whether full or nominally empty) or the volumes or method of storage of flammable or highly flammable liquids are being reconsidered. A review of the fire risk assessment should also be undertaken before any changes are made to processes or operating conditions.

If it is intended that processes involving the use of flammable liquids or gases are to be left operating without staff in attendance, a specific risk assessment for these should be undertaken and appropriate control measures introduced.

All businesses should take steps to maintain the continuity of their operations by putting in place an effective emergency plan to ensure the resilience of the organisation.


The FPA publishes a number of guidance documents on behalf of RISCAuthority that are succinct and easily read guides to various aspects of the subject. Chief among these are the following, which are available from the RISCAuthority website:

  • RC5: Fire protection of laboratories
  • RC8: Recommendations for the storage, use and handling of common industrial gases in cylinders including LPG
  • RC12: Recommendations for the prevention and control of dust explosions
  • RC30: Recommendations for the selection of electrical/ non-electrical equipment for use in atmospheres containing flammable/explosive gases and vapours
  • RC49: Recommendations for fire safety in the storage, use handling and use of acetylene cylinders
  • RC52: Recommendations for fire safety for waste solvent recovery plants
  • RC55: Recommendations for fire safety in the storage, handling and use of flammable and highly flammable liquids
  • RC56: Recommendations for fire safety in the storage, handling and use of highly flammable and flammable liquids: storage in containers other than external fixed tanks
  • RC57: Recommendations for fire safety in the storage handling and use of highly flammable and flammable liquids: storage in external fixed tanks

All staff who may be called upon to handle or use flammable or highly flammable liquids should receive suitable training. Many of these courses are based on the VICES acronym, standing for ventilation, ignition, containment, exchange and separation.

In all cases, one of the fundamental questions is whether hazardous materials can be replaced by less hazardous substances. The numbers of gas cylinders and containers of flammable and highly flammable liquids kept on site should be carefully managed and kept to the minimum compatible with operational needs. In particular, nominally empty gas cylinders, drums and so forth should not be allowed to accumulate and should be returned to the supplier at the earliest opportunity.

The statistics indicate that, in recent years, they are possibly at last being treated with more respect than at times in the past.

Adair Lewis is technical manager at the FPA

These statistics are based on information supplied by loss adjusters to the FPA on a voluntary basis and not all insurers conducting business in the UK contribute to this dataset. They represent only sums paid out where the total loss is in excess of £100k and are deficient of losses under £100K, deductibles, underinsurance, uninsured, self-insured and captively insured components, which may be significant. In a year, total losses captured typically account for 50% of the ABI declared annual fire loss figure – which is similarly deficient of the same components (except the £100k threshold).

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