Kevin Smith, partner at JLT's food and drink practice, told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “Many food factories are beginning to show their age with electrical problems starting to arise in wiring and lighting systems.
“Electrical failure was identified as the principal cause of nearly 20% of food industry property losses. Good quality maintenance is therefore essential, particularly in ageing premises.”
His comments follow bad news last week for two food manufacturers, Wessex Foods and Dearne Valley Foods, who suffered devastating fires, although these incidents are not believed to have been caused by electrical problems.
Smith pointed to several additional factors that have increased the risk of food processing fires given “very particular problems facing the manufacturing sector.”
In addition to electrical failings, Smith cited problems with non-approved composite panels made of materials commonly installed at factories until the end of the 1990s.
These include combustibles such as expanded and extruded polystyrene or polyurethane and polyisocyanature and modified phenolic. In 2006 the then West Midlands Fire Service chief Frank Sheehan called for the replacement of such panels on toxicity grounds with non-combustible, mineral fibre equivalents.
Composite panel danger
“They [non-approved composite panels] are not hazardous in themselves but represent a significant risk in terms of combustibility and lethal smoke,” Smith said.
“Fire brigades are very reluctant to enter a burning building known to have such composite panels due to the risk of collapse and poisoning.
“Occupiers of buildings with composite panels need to maintain detailed records thereof and ensure that any processes or contractor activity in the vicinity of the panels is undertaken under strict controls and with appropriate permits – including specific ‘hot work’ permits.”
By nature food factories are dangerous places, and Smith said that hazardous processes such as baking, frying, smoking and spray-drying needed management using techniques such as explosion venting, water mist or sprinkler systems.
He added that such safeguards were especially relevant, given that the fire at Dearne Valley is believed to have started due to frying activity, while combustible factory construction made it extremely difficult to stop the Wessex Foods blaze.
Meanwhile, manufacturers with modern, well-protected facilities could expect significantly lower insurance premiums, with discounts of up to 50% if approved sprinkler systems were installed, Smith said.
“Whilst it is seldom cost-effective to retro-fit sprinklers there is a strong case for fitting these to new facilities or where major refurbishment work is being undertaken.”
Irrespective of the age of the facility, he added, good housekeeping remained a necessity. “Most large fires start as small fires, so controlling the environment to protect against avoidable fire spread is essential and costs very little.”
Despite a competitive marketplace, Smith warned that insurers were increasingly selective, and that to achieve the best premiums food manufacturers needed to present a strong risk management case.
“Increasingly insurers are also looking for firms to demonstrate effective business continuity plans that show an ability to cope with major disruption,” he said.
Research by JLT’s food and drink practice estimates that London insurers have paid out over £1.5bn to UK and Irish food manufacturers in the last six years, in relation to property and business interruption claims.