Fire risk – how not to get burnt
Facility managers need to be well-informed about the risks of combustible sandwich panels and the impact of recent disasters on the insurance market, as RUSSELL TOLL and CLIVE DAWES report.
The impact of fire where Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) sandwich panels feature in building construction can be catastrophic.
Insulated metal panels are commonly used as walls or wall/ceiling combinations in industrial and commercial buildings. Typically they have an EPS core, but modern panels also utilise non-combustible rock wool, or fire resistive PIR (polyisocyanurate) or Xflam.
But a number of recent – and large – losses have the insurance industry talking.
The global insurance market in this sector has been contracting since 2001 and to ensure your facility can maintain its optimal levels of cover at the best possible premium rates, there are a number of critical factors to consider.
Essentially, your business will need to demonstrate first-class risk management practices, disaster/crisis recovery strategies and business continuity planning. Whether or not one agrees with the insurance industry reaction, this is the current reality.
WHAT’S THE ISSUE WITH EPS?
Modern insulated sandwich panels have excellent insulating properties, are light and easy to install, and provide a clean, easy to maintain finish. However, panels with a polystyrene core can present a severe fire hazard.
When exposed to heat, polystyrene will initially shrink away from the heat source, but the foam will eventually vaporise. If it ignites, fire spread will be rapid, destroying the structural integrity of the panels and allowing fire to flash across the exposed foam and collapse. Radiant heat will then quickly weaken the building’s structural frame, potentially leading to destruction of the entire building or fire area.
The heat content of polystyrene is similar to petrol, emitting a dense black smoke containing oily, sooty and toxic particulate matter, which can contaminate an entire building or area and present serious health and environmental risks. In effect, this is equivalent to a three-dimensional flammable liquid fire.
Manual fire-fighting can be hazardous due to the building’s structural instability and fire burning inside the panels. Fire brigades may elect not to enter the building for their own safety, further adding to the physical damage.
Fire retardant additives do not significantly affect the burning characteristics of polystyrene other than they may delay its ignition.
Where EPS panels are installed, robust management controls are needed to prevent ignition. This should include an awareness of the fire hazard, identification (signage) of the subject panels, stringent procedures relating to physical works (penetrations, cutting etc) and prompt repair of any damaged metal coverings to prevent bare foam from being exposed to an ignition source.
In addition, any electrical switchboards and forklift battery chargers fixed to the wall should be removed or physically separated with a non-combustible barrier, and any electrical cable penetrations should be appropriately fire stopped.
Replacement or new works should utilise panels with a rock wool, PIR or Xflam core rather than EPS.
Where automatic sprinkler protection is installed, it should be designed to FM Global Data Sheet 1-57, which specifically addresses the EPS fire hazard. Without this level of protection, automatic sprinklers designed only for the occupancy hazard may be ineffective.
AN INSURANCE PERSPECTIVE
There are a limited number of insurance companies in Australia, and globally, that are willing to cover EPS risks largely due to the high severity of losses when they occur. Recent events mean we’re already seeing a retraction in insurer capacity and increased pricing. Consequently, risks with large policy limits need to utilise Australian and overseas insurers in order to gain 100 percent cover.
This highlights the importance of risk management controls aimed at preventing a fire in the first instance. In particular, every operator with this type of building material should have a dedicated risk management plan for the building and the associated operations.
Insurers are, and will continue to be, paying particular attention to pre-loss risk management as well as post-loss business continuity planning. If your facility is constructed with EPS panels, you will need to ensure that you can provide current risk engineering survey reports to your insurer, or broker going to the insurance market on your behalf.
All risk recommendations – particularly those relating to hot work permits, housekeeping, thermographic scanning, unsealed openings in panels and impairment notices – will need to be promptly and properly addressed.
Insurance companies will apply a great deal more scrutiny in assessing EPS risks before deciding where they will commit their capital. So, where capital is limited, risks that are well-managed will have the best chance of securing the cover required. If your company isn’t able to demonstrate an acute awareness of the exposures and appropriate risk management responses, you may find it far more difficult to obtain the right level of cover and avoid significant premium increases.
The bottom line for any insurer is in their confidence that your company is proactive in minimising its own risks rather than solely relying on an insurance company if anything goes wrong.
Russell Toll is national manager – placement services, and Clive Dawes is senior risk engineer at Willis Towers Watson.
This article also appears in the February/March issue of Facility Management magazine.
Lead image: 123RF’s Warakorn Harnprasop © 123RF.com