AUST – HENDRY building surveyors advise designers, developers, owners and facility managers that buildings assessed and approved under the Building Code of Australia (BCA) can still contain a risk of being destroyed by fire. A recent building audit (that included fire safety) undertaken highlighted the added risk of buildings that contain foam sandwich panels and also contain possible ignition sources.  The building in question contained an industrial oven enclosed by four walls and a ceiling constructed of foam sandwich panels.

Current building fire safety provisions under the BCA consider the safe egress of the occupants, the restriction of the spread of fire to neighbouring properties and the protection of fire fire fighters attending to the building fire.  The protection of the asset is not normally a priority in design and approval.

Insurance companies and fire fighting authorities have highlighted the risk of buildings containing foam sandwich panels.  Notwithstanding, owners and occupiers can reduce the inherent risk by initiating some basic risk reduction strategies.

Many may ask why the risk of foam sandwich panels and other hazards such as “industrial ovens” are not picked up during the building approval stage.  The simple answer is they can be; if the nature and use of the building is known at the time of the approval, to the building surveyor/ building certifier.  The following section of the BCA should be considered in these circumstances:

BCA Part E1 FIRE FIGHTING EQUIPMENT
Part E1.10 Provision for special hazards

Suitable additional provision must be made if special problems of fire fighting could arise because of:

(a) the nature or quantity of materials stored, displayed or used in the building or on the allotment; or
Part E2.3 Provision for special hazards

Additional smoke hazard management measures may be necessary due to the:

(a) special characteristics of the building; or
(b) special function or use of the building; or
(c) special type or quantity of materials stored, displayed or used in a building

Foam sandwich panels are predominately used in the food processing industry as the system includes good thermal insulation qualities. The non combustible outer metal skin provides for easy cleaning and hygiene maintenance.

Foam sandwich panels can vary in fire resistance depending on the nature of the insulation and fire retardant treatments.  However the use of fire retardants cannot ensure non-combustibility.  The protection of insulation material from fire is therefore a very important tool in a risk management strategy, and to be checked during a BCA building audit or due diligence audit.

Research by the Fire Protection Association and the Association of British Insurers concludes that most fires involving foam sandwich panels can be prevented by reducing ignition sources.  Even combustible insulation requires a significant size of ignition source to propagate the fire.

It is therefore imperative that owners, occupiers and facility managers incorporate an emergency management plan (stemming from a building audit  for an existing building), that includes the following measures for buildings containing foam sandwich panels which are recommended by the Association of British Insurers and Tony Mathews of Risk Central:

  • Processes which are a potential fire hazard should be located well away from sandwich panels.
  • Combustible materials should not be stacked near to the surface of panels. Timber of plastic pallets should not be stacked close to combustible sandwich panels, a 10m break being widely recommended.
  • Forklift truck battery charging should be located well away from sandwich panels unless the sandwich panel system can be identified as having at least 60 minutes fire resistance.
  • Electrical equipment located near sandwich panels should be examined and tested at least annually.
  • Attaching items to sandwich panels should be avoided. Where this is not possible, care should be taken to ensure that the core is not left exposed or damaged.
  • Unauthorised access to the external cladding should be prevented to reduce the possibility of an arson attack.

Designers and developers should consider the following items during design of projects where foam sandwich panels is to be included:

  • Automatic fire suppression systems appropriate for the process should be fitted to all heating and cooking equipment.
  • Flues used to extract hot gases should not pass through combustible sandwich panels unless adequately protected.
  • As far as possible, services penetrations through sandwich panels should be avoided. If this is in to possible any gaps should be adequately fire stopped.
  • Electrical cables passing through sandwich panels should always be enclosed in a metal conduit.
  • The use of full sprinkler protection system to the factory should be encouraged.
  • The building should be sub-divided into a number of fire resisting compartments wherever practical.

Conclusion

The use of foam sandwich panels in buildings is common particularly in the food processing industry.  Foam sandwich panels provides good insulation, low maintenance and hygienic conditions.  The risks associated with the physical characteristics of the panel need to be considered during design and during occupancy. If any doubts exist a building audit by a building surveying professional should be instigated to examine the above possibilities.

Building Legislation Table

Refer to our Building Legislation table for further information on building standards and building compliance.