Low risk, high fire safety construction products should be a priority

Written by: Terry Burton | Published:

Dame Judith Hackitt published a review of building regulations and fire safety ‘Building a safer future’ on the 17 May 2018, in the wake of the Grenfill fire disaster.

It proposed a new standards regulator that will increase safety in high rise buildings. The report also highlights a lack of evidence that what was being installed is compliant, misleading product labelling and poor industry competency.

But it is the issue of fire retardancy testing and labelling that we are taking for our focus, and the implications for construction products other than cladding.

There are a total of 53 recommendations in the report, broken into 10 chapters. In particular we are interested in the chapter seven that focuses on products: ‘Creating a more robust and transparent construction product regime.’

The report highlights the lack of evidence of what was being installed is in fact compliant, stating that product labelling was in some cases misleading or fragmented.

It recommends clear, permanent and transparent labelling of products to address confusing wording such as ‘fire proof’ or ‘fire resistant’ which are often used without explaining the parameters within which the product can be used.

Interestingly, the report did not object to the future use of combustible plastic cladding on high-rise buildings, such as that installed at Grenfell. However, when specifying materials for buildings, contractors should now make their own assessment as to the feasibility and safety of materials.

Improved testing regime for products

The report also advocates a more rigorous and transparent product testing regime, finding the current process for testing and certifying products to be very complex.

It states: “a more effective testing regime with clearer labelling and product traceability, including a periodic review process of test methods and the range of standards to drive continuous improvement and higher performance and encourage innovative product and system design under better quality control.”

As a result, the report has driven an increasing number of manufacturers to provide clear and complete test evidence for their products that includes details of the test, its results, parameters and installation requirements.

Halogen-free flame-retardant polymers

As a UK knowledge-based technical plastics compounder, Luxus constantly pushes the boundaries of polypropylene (PP) development. We have responded to increasing demand recently to develop highly engineered prime and recycled content polymers with proven fire retardancy.

There will of course be new standards implemented as a result of the Hackitt report, but in the meantime, we match our halogen-fee and therefore, low-toxic flame retardant polymers to the UL94 flammability test standard for improved safety.

Previously halogens such as chlorine and bromine would have been added to polymers to help products withstand high temperatures, but they released dangerous toxics when burned.

We aim to deliver the same ignition resistance, but our polymers are environmentally friendly without compromising on physical performance for those manufacturers that want to eliminate halogen use.

So what is UL94 standard that provides a measure for these polymers to be tested against?

UL94 is the standard for Tests for Flammability of plastic materials in devices and appliances and includes small tests that evaluate the flammability of polymers in response to a small open flame under controlled laboratory conditions.

The UL94 standard provides a method of rating the ignition characteristics of plastic materials. Two UK 94 ratings that code officials commonly run across are HB and V (V-0, V-1 or V-2). To achieve a HB rating, test samples are placed horizontally and burn slowly across the sample when the test flame is applied to the end of the sample.

To achieve a V rating for example, the test samples are placed vertically with the test flame impinging on the bottom of the sample, it must extinguish within specified times, not burning to the top clamp or dripping molten material which ignites a cotton indicator.

The future

The Hackitt report recommends that a culture change is required to support the delivery of buildings that are safe, both now and in the future. To meet these requirements procurement must now be focused on obtaining the best value with safety as a priority, rather than the lowest cost.

The overall aim is to tackle poor procurement practice to help drive the right behaviours to make sure low-risk, high-safety options are a priority. Contractors will be required to take greater responsibility for building safety and to think for themselves to deliver safety which means specifying test compliant, non-combustible or limited combustible products.

The development of highly engineered polymers that meet the UK94 standard offers construction specifiers a halogen-free flame retardant protection for use in their chosen construction application to help make buildings and their inhabitants safer.

Terry Burton is technical manager at Luxus

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