Adair Lewis analyses the statistics from large loss fires in take away and fast food outlets and gives advice on how to mitigate risks.

WHEREVER WE go and whatever we do, a visit to a take away or fast food outlet is often mandatory if children are involved and is often a necessary stopping off point for other people as well. In many shopping malls, there is now a bewildering variety of fast food outlets – some of which are rather more tempting than others.

For those in the fire protection industry, fast food has become synonymous with serious fires, which are often associated with deep fat fryers. There are few outlets that do not have a deep fat fryer in their kitchen; even pizza parlours and curry houses offer chips with take away meals. So are the safest (and possibly healthiest) outlets the sushi and wasabi shops, where chips are not high up the menu?

To put the record of take away and fast food outlets in context, the other classifications in the food and drink section of the large loss fire statistics relate to wine bars/bars and restaurants/cafes where the kitchens have ovens, grilles and hobs as well as deep fat fryers.

During the seven years of the survey, nearly 10% of large loss fires occurred in food and drink venues – rather more than might have been expected. However, the incidents accounted for a little less than 6% of the total estimated financial losses.

This is not surprising, given the greater potential for property loss with fi res in large industrial and processing industries.

  • The estimated loss for take away and fast food outlets nevertheless totalled some £33.3m in the seven year period of the review, approaching an average of £5m per year.
  • Property damage accounted for over half (57%) of this loss, with business interruption accounting for 29%.
  • The remaining 14% reflects loss of rent, food and kitchen equipment.

The picture is similar with food and drink venues as a whole, although it is surprising that the ‘machine and plant’ element of other venues is about seven times higher than for take away outlets.

There are about twice as many accidental as deliberate fires in the food and drink sector, which is not at all surprising.

However as with so many of these reviews, nearly one third of the reports failed to indicate the cause of the fire.

Regarding the time of day when the fires occurred, there are significantly fewer fires in take away and fast food outlets in the early hours of the morning (24:00 to 06:00) than is the case for restaurants and the like. This no doubt reflects the different opening hours. In only four recorded cases did the fire and rescue services record impedances to their firefighting operations in fast food outlets. Two of these involved access and the other two a lack of resources. The access issue may relate to incidents in outlets within shopping malls, stations and airports where access to the shop front is not necessarily directly available from the roadway. It should be noted, however, that there were 33 occasions on which access was also poor in the case of other food and drink venues, although these may reflect parking problems outside popular restaurants and cafes.

Addressing the problems

A point was made earlier regarding deep fat fryers. Recommendations for their use are set out in two RISCAuthority publications. RC16A: Risk Control recommendations for fish and chip frying ranges is specific to the equipment to be found in fish and chip shops, while RC16B: Risk control recommendations for fire safety in commercial kitchens is a more generally applicable document setting out best fire safety management practice for commercial kitchens.

Emphasis is placed in both of these documents on the need for the careful design and installation of hoods, canopies and ducts, but this is only part of the story – as access to all areas is necessary for cleaning purposes, and a rigorous cleaning schedule has to be followed and recorded. While filters can be cleaned weekly by kitchen staff, competent contractors should be engaged to clean the remainder of the extract system and ductwork on a regular basis.

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Good practice

Best practice set out in RC 16A – which is applicable to the use of all deep fat fryers, not just those in fish and chip shops – is as follows:

  • do not leave the fryer unattended while in use
  • do not top up heated pans with oil from large containers
  • do not introduce water, ice or wet food into the hot oil
  • do not overload the cooking basket
  • do not let the basket drop into the oil
  • check that the oil is between the minimum and maximum oil level marks; do not have too little or overfill the pans
  • break up dripping or fat into small lumps prior to use
  • clean up spills from the floor immediately
  • take care when shaking food in the basket
  • allow oil to cool before draining; the removal of oil should always be undertaken when it has cooled sufficiently to be handled safely
  • turn off the fryer and allow the oil to cool before cleaning
  • clean the equipment in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions

When discarding hot oil, the container in which used oil is to be stored should be: made of metal or heat resistant plastic (normal thin plastic containers will soften and melt); clean and dry, to prevent the risk of explosion and injury; fitted with a lid when filled or partially filled, to prevent entry of moisture and leakage if knocked over; and in good condition, with no holes or leaking joints.

The containers of waste oil should not be stored indoors, but removed from the kitchen as soon as practicable and stored outside – where possible at least10m from the building. While stored outside, they should be protected from the environment and against damage from vehicles.

Large quantities of combustible packaging are necessary for take away foods, but only the quantities of packaging materials needed for immediate use should be kept in the kitchen or servery area. Bulk stocks should be stored in a separate fire compartment with the minimum of potential sources of ignition.

All waste should be removed from the premises as soon as is practicable and stored outside in a metal container with a metal lid to await collection.

Adair Lewis is technical consultant 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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