Reducing the risk of fire at waste management sites

Written by: Chloe Hashemi | Published:
Between 2001 and 2013, the Environment Agency recorded a total of 4,321 waste fires at both regulated and unregulated sites

Fire is a very probable hazard of a majority of waste management sites. Whether due to slack security or an inadequate initial assessment, there is more than one way for waste fires to break out all year round, says Chloe Hashemi

The most common cause of these fires is a result of a spontaneous chemical combustion of waste at solid waste handling sites, which are challenging to monitor without the correct technology and expertise.

The general chemical reaction that occurs is between the hot particles produced by the vehicles, which collect the municipal waste. These particles combine and ignite: causing the waste site itself to set alight. A catalyst for this reaction is the high volume of methane which is released from the waste during the process of decay.

Between 2001 and 2013, the Environment Agency recorded a total of 4,321 waste fires at both regulated and unregulated sites. This is an equivalent of an average of 332 fires per year. Often these fires cause a considerable amount of damage across the site, and not only that, but the environment in surrounding areas.

This wide scale damage can come at a significant cost, requiring the cooperation of all important resources, such as fire and emergency services. Between 2012-2013, Scottish Fire & Rescue Services spent £15.9 million on 8,000 waste fires, and this was in Scotland alone.

What can members of the waste industry do to prevent risk?

These fires are a serious danger to people living in the surrounding area, to the waste operator, and the environment. Such accidents can also disrupt business of the site, and rack up fines, not to mention the potential damage this can have on business reputation.

Assessment is essential

Under fire legislation, an assessment of fire risks at every waste management site is mandatory. Based on this assessment, appropriate tools and measures must be actioned as part of the set ‘fire plan’. Fire legislation details that you must identify where on the site there are combustible or flammable materials, and where the possible ignition sources are.

It is the operator’s duty to produce a comprehensive fire risk assessment, and take the correct measures and put the correct controls into place, all as part of the fire plan. The logistics of this fire plan may include physical measures such as fire fighting equipment to prevent the spread of fire, or procedural; measures such as emergency and evacuation plans. Your fire plans do not have to be complicated, you just have to ensure that all possible sources of fire have been identified and all, appropriable controls are firmly in place. General guidance on these fire risk assessments are available on the Gov.uk website.

Enhanced security measures

Installing CCTV cameras, various alarms, fences, etc. can lessen likelihood of an arson attack. Flame detectors and/or aspirating fire detection systems can give that added peace of mind and help prevent breakout of fires after the initial assessment has been carried out. However, it is essential that all detection and alarm systems are installed and maintained to relevant standards, and tested and checked regularly.

Out of hours procedure

A proper shut down procedure of all machinery when not in use is essential to reduce the risk of fire out of hours. This procedure can include the following: a minimum of one hour fire-watch after the end of operations, clearance of all accumulated waste under or around machinery and equipment, and ensuring that all and any flammable materials have been stored appropriately.

Thermal imaging technology

Thermal imaging technology uses an infrared lens which reveals subtle temperature increases that are not visible to the naked eye. As all objects, living and manmade emit infrared energy as heat, by detecting these subtle temperature differences, anomalies can be established, helping to prevent accidents.

When concerning waste management, thermal imaging technology has the capability to monitor waste being stored in management sites, surveying for hot spots, which may have the potential to start fires. They are especially effective where hydraulic systems are concerned. These systems generate a lot of heat, and as hydraulic oil is highly flammable, these machines pose high risk on a site. Thermal imaging technology can be used for regular inspections of these systems, identifying any hot spots immediately, before any fire breaks out.

The cameras can also be used to detect electrical faults in the equipment itself. This technology can function no matter what the time of day, as the cameras do not need light to take a concise image, and do not need to be in direct contact with their subject to monitor it.

Thermal imaging cameras are also very affordable, which contributes to the overall cost-effectiveness of a waste management site.

Adequate training of staff

In order to prevent frequent waste fires, it is essential to have certain skills and expertise on site to know how to react to such an event. This competence requires the correct skills, training, knowledge and experience to deal with a disaster such as a waste fire. Although staff may have been competent to start with, this does not mean they are the best person for the job for years. Staff need to be updated when technology is updated, and when operating procedures are updated, etc.

Storing of incompatible materials (materials which often do not react well together during the chemical and biological processes) is a common cause of waste fires. Employing people who have an in-depth knowledge of these incompatibilities, as well as correct storage practice of the waste is another way to eliminate chance of a waste fire.

- Chloe Hashemi works on behalf of ISSWWW, thermal imaging technology experts


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