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Fire hazards in footwear factories

Considering ways that footwear producers can reduce the risk of fire.

by Steve Rose

Image © abadonian

The dangers inherent in the fabric of factory buildings and the products, substances and processes they house are well documented. Major news stories from around the world regularly reveal the tragic consequences of fires breaking out in these facilities. Over the past two years, there have been devastating blazes in shoe factories in such diverse locations as Australia, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, South Africa and the UK. These fires have severely affected the companies’ production capabilities by destroying their buildings and machinery, as well as stock in storage. However, the greatest disaster is when lives have been lost, which is sadly a result of some factory conflagrations.

Notwithstanding national regulations in force where the operation is based, there are a number of steps which will minimise the potential risks associated with factory fires. This article outlines key policies that can be implemented and procedures that can be taken.

When assessing how safe a footwear manufacturing plant is, no production processes can be exempt from consideration. Some parts of a factory are potentially more hazardous than others, while other risks are common to a number of areas.


High-risk areas should be clearly marked with hazard symbols

The majority of hazards in a particular area should be easily identifiable. Nevertheless, not every danger will be immediately obvious and determining the corrective action might not be straightforward. Expert guidance may be required to identify hazards, determine how shortcomings should be addressed and identify the level of improvement required. Factory management should monitor these on a regular basis to ensure that standards are being maintained.

Conducting regular ‘risk assessments’ is the best method of monitoring hazards, and thereby developing the means of reducing potential dangers. In many jurisdictions, risk assessments are a mandatory part of health and safety legislation. For any fire to start, three things must be present, which the risk assessment should focus on keeping separate. These things are i) a source of fuel (any combustible material, which highlights the importance of good factory housekeeping), ii) a source of ignition – this can be from equipment and electrical sources, as well as casually discarded cigarettes and deliberate action, and iii) oxygen, which is obviously the most difficult to eliminate. Considering how these three elements of a fire are interlinked will help with the risk assessment process.

Airborne hazards


Efficient extraction can remove vapours as they are produced

Perhaps the most obvious hazard in many production areas where solvent-based adhesives and primers are used is that of volatile organic compound (VOC) concentrations. Not only may these be toxic, but also many are flammable and so are potentially explosive. The best long-term solution is to substitute all solvent-based products with solvent-free alternatives, although availability, cost and current factory practices may act as deterrents in this regard.

An acceptable alternative is to prevent solvent vapours from building up to hazardous levels around work areas. This strategy can involve several approaches, such as i) good design of work areas, which can minimise vapours in workers’ ‘breathing zones’, ii) special safety dispensers to reduce vapour emissions from the products used, and iii) efficient extraction that can remove vapours as they are produced. This must not, however, be confused with ventilation or air circulation measures. Above all, smoking or naked flames must be prohibited wherever solvent-based products are used.

Solvent stores and mixing rooms

In solvent storage, bulk dispensing and mixing areas the risk is more acute, albeit for shorter exposure times. Extreme measures are required to prevent explosion of flammable vapours. All electrical switches, lighting and mixing systems must be non-sparking types. It is also prudent to ban equipment such as mobile phones and personal stereos in such areas, as these may provide sources of ignition.

Spillage containment measures must be in place where large volumes of solvent-based products are stored. Sand or another absorbent and inert medium should be available to prevent spillage spread. Raised ridges or steps will more effectively contain spillages (these are known as ‘bunded areas’) and thereby prevent flow to other areas. Indeed, the storage/mixing area should be capable of being sealed off completely until vapours clear. Adequate fire hazard and health warnings should be sited outside this area and a self-actuating dry powder sprinkler system should be installed. For additional information on the safe use of solvents, see the article ‘Understanding solvents’.

Electrical dangers

As well as the special fixtures required in solvent stores, other aspects of electrical supply require attention. All machines that draw power should be checked regularly for electrical safety, and a notice attached to indicate when testing is next due. These checks should be made at least annually and also whenever repairs have been made to the equipment. Machines that fail such checks should be disconnected until they are repaired and retested. Full records must be kept of all testing and repairs.


Firefighting equipment must be easily accessible and clearly labelled

A visual check should also be made to ensure fittings are sound and undamaged. Any worn or damaged wiring must be replaced by a competent and qualified electrician. All electrical connections on machines must be insulated to prevent contact with live wires.

Electrical wires and leads should be as short as possible and flex should never lie across floors. Not only are these tripping hazards but, if knocked, they could become loose and ‘live.’ Also – as in solvent stores – safety electrical fittings must be used wherever flammable materials are at risk of ignition by sparks or electrical arcing.


Escape routes should be clearly marked

Fire precautions

There should be a responsible person assigned as ‘fire warden’ or ‘fire marshal’ for each work area. Deputies must also be assigned to cover for absences. Suitable extinguishers should be readily to hand and clearly marked for the type of fire on which they should be used. If extinguishers are not immediately visible, signs must indicate where they are located. The extinguishers must be checked regularly, as should fire hoses and hydrants. They must also be mounted in accessible positions.


Walkways should be wide and clear

There should be sufficient numbers of easily accessible alarm sounders located around all occupied buildings, with a considerable number in higher-risk areas. As mentioned previously, this is best determined by conducting risk assessments in each area. Alarm sounders need to be tested regularly with fire drills, for which records should be kept. In noisy environments, sounds can be supplemented with flashing lights.

In the event of a fire or drill, any problems encountered by staff must be reported and recorded – for instance, if exit routes are blocked or doors are locked. It is also important to ensure that all walkways, emergency routes and passages are free of tripping hazards and blockages. They should be sufficiently well marked and wide enough to allow easy access for members of staff.

Fire routes and exits must never be used as storage areas (even on a temporary basis) and employees must not leave personal items in these areas. They must also not be used as rest or break areas.

Dust and particulates

Airborne particles are commonly produced by roughing and scouring operations. These should be treated in the same manner as vapours. Fine particulates and smoke also emanate from some moulding and vulcanising operations, and can be checked by personal air monitors. It is important to ensure that extraction equipment is of sufficient power to remove dust particles. Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems must produce sufficient air movement to capture released particles near the workstation. For further information, please see the article ‘The dangers from factory dust’.

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 8 of the July/August 2017 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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