Some people don’t like change. But when it comes to safety and risk management in your business, changing your ways can be critical to preventing catastrophe.
Just ask Josef Pruellage. He is the senior risk assessment consultant with the risk services division of Hub International, the largest insurance brokerage firm in Canada. Pruellage has done assessments for wood businesses in just about every region of the country, and he has seen just about everything. Pruellage recalls one shop in particular that needed to change just about every practice. It was one of those places where you are just waiting for something to happen, he says.
An all-too-common practice, says Pruellage, is improper, unsafe disposal of soiled cleaning and finishing rags. Often, they’re just tossed in the trash. “There are very few facilities I walk into where I don’t see dirty rags where they shouldn’t be,” he says. “These rags will spontaneously combust if they’re not stored appropriately after they’ve been used.” Where they should be is in special containers approved by Underwriters Laboratories of Canada and FM Global. Both are organizations that set industry standards across industries.
Then there was the company that had a fire-response plan, but no one appeared to take it seriously during a drill. “Nobody was preparing, nobody was doing anything,” remembers Pruellage. “The fire wardens weren’t getting ready. It wasn’t until the fast bell that people started running.”
Whether it’s improper rag storage or non-existent fire drills, Pruellage wants to see a lot more wood-business owners taking fewer risks with their livelihoods.
Calamity in a flash
A fire catastrophe can happen in an instant. In the wood industry it happens too often, though mostly in the primary sector. Just days before we went to press, a fire at Miramichi Lumber Products in Miramichi, N.B., closed the mill at least temporarily. The Jan. 6 fire, under investigation, happened in the plant’s main electrical room.
In January 2012, a massive fire at the Eacom mill in Timmins, Ont., destroyed the facility. While the mill was reconstructed — at a cost of $25 million, it was more than 18 months before the plant re-opened.
An April 2012 blaze at a Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C., killed two people and injured 20 others, and mill management was blamed. The plant’s under-sized dust collection system was replaced. However, the plant increased production instead of shutting down until a corresponding needed electrical upgrade was done. The mill’s electrical supply couldn’t handle the increased load. Rotating conveyor belts near a conveyor motor ignited a wood-dust buildup.
Don’t get complacent
Pruellage cautions against getting complacent and thinking it will never happen to you. He stresses, dust and combustible chemicals are the two biggest issues across the industry.
“It costs money to clean and to have your sprinkler systems inspected…or put abort gates in the dust collection system…but it costs even more if you have a fire happen. God forbid if it is you who has to contact a spouse and you have to say, ‘He isn’t coming home today, or ever,’” Pruellage says solemnly.
You and your employees are experts in your field — wood and joinery, and wood finishing. But there’s a knowledge gap that can cause catastrophe —wood experts generally don’t know all the ins and outs of all the technical safety standards to help owners protect their businesses. That’s because the standards are in the insurance industry realm.
According to Pruellage, “From an insurance perspective, we want to know, are they following the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, are they following the FM Global standards? These are the things they should be following.”
Pruellage points to sprinkler systems as a prime example of why you should get help. “Not all things are created equal. Just because you have a sprinkler system doesn’t mean it is designed for what you have stored there,” says Pruellage.
Seek expert help
Pruellage doesn’t expect you to know all the industry safety standards — that is his job. The important thing is proactively seeking expert help to ensure you are minimizing risk, he says. There are a lot of resources out there, so you can do a Google search and find best practices and such that are in layman’s terms. If you find great resources, use them.
But it’s also important to have an on-site risk assessment done by a professional, Pruellage notes. “The challenge is getting them (shop owners) to understand these things really are critical. If you don’t have the right policies and procedures in place, all your life’s hard work could be down the drain.”
Dust: The biggest cloud
With dust the number-one factor, there are some critical questions you should ask yourself. Risk assessment consultants and insurers will also ask these, according to Pruellage:
- Cleaning — What are you doing on a regular basis to mitigate dust exposure?
- Sprinkler systems — Do you have them, and are they clean? How often are they inspected?
- Dust-collection system — Is it indoor, or outdoor? Bag type, or cyclone type? How many feeds are there? Is there a sprinkler system inside the collector for protection?
- Spray operations — Are they in a combustible, or non-combustible room? Is there good ventilation and the proper electrical rating?
“It may appear to be a clean facility when you first walk in, but there are standards out there from NFPA and FM Global that dictate how much dust you can collect,” says Pruellage. “Once you reach those, you have to start cleaning — theoretically — but there are many companies out there that only clean once a year and they think that’s good enough.”
Dust isn’t just a fire-safety issue. It’s also a health and safety issue. According to Carex Canada, a cancer-prevention national watchdog of environmental and workplace exposures, about 340,000 Canadians are exposed to wood dust in the workplace. It’s no surprise Carex notes, “Furniture and cabinetry shops are generally thought to have the highest exposures, particularly during sanding and finishing work, when the finest particles are generated.”
Carex says wood-dust exposures have decreased a lot. In an analysis of exposures in the U.S., Carex noted in 1979, dust exposure was 4.59 mg per cubic metre. However, in 1999, that had declined to 0.14 mg per cubic metre. Still, it’s important to have safety protocols including making sure staff in finishing areas wear dust masks.
Preventing liquid blow-ups
Combustible liquids are the industry’s number-two issue. This is why proper, safe disposal of rags used in cleaning and finishing is critical, Pruellage stresses, as is having proper ventilation in finishing areas. Your finishing area should be set up so neither lights nor spray equipment operate unless the ventilation system is on, he explains. “When you’re talking about urethanes and varathanes, they’re highly flammable liquids.” Even water-based finishes can be combustible if they have an alcohol content, he notes.
It’s not easy for wood-industry companies to get property and casualty (P and C) insurance. Many insurers just won’t deal with them. Pruellage says the number in Canada that will, fluctuates every year. He says this is because insurers often have been insuring wood industry businesses, but then suddenly decide they have an issue and stop doing so. It means facilities that can’t get domestic coverage must turn to a U.S. or overseas insurer. The problem with this, says Pruellage, is that foreign-based insurers don’t have staff in Canada they can send on site to do a risk consultation and really help their clients. P and C insurance isn’t mandatory, but Pruellage says without it, you risk losing everything. Continued
Following best practices is best
Pruellage says there’s an easy way of making sure you get insured — take safety seriously, and follow best practices. Doing so also helps avoid complacency that can lead to catastrophe, he says. “If you can work efficiently and smartly, you can use the extra time you are saving to put health-and-safety procedures, policies and programs in place.”
And, he notes, safety comes from the top down. “You need people to understand why they’re doing things. If people don’t really believe in what you’re telling them, they’re going to be complacent.”
Pruellage suggests seven best practices to follow:
- Have an emergency response plan regardless of the size of your business. Make sure you not only have the plan, but also test it regularly.
- Have a contractor-control program in place. This includes safety procedures and policies governing “hotwork,” says Pruellage. People very much underestimate hotwork — welding, for example, and what it can do, he says. Even if you don’t own the building, you should still have a contractor-control program because you own all the operations and stock. If you want to be insured, this program is crucial.
- A dust-remediation program. Have a plan for things that need cleaning hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, semi-annually and annually.
- Flammable liquids. Have your storage area professionally designed, as well as your spray room. Don’t design your own space. Also, ensure there is a proper sprinkler or other fire protection and suppressant system in the room.
- Establish a health and safety committee — regardless of whether you’re mandated to by law because of your company’s size and number of employees.
- Do walk-arounds. Check constantly to make sure best practices are always followed in all areas.
- Have a risk control consultant come on site. They are trained experts who can identify things you might miss; they’re a crucial second pair of eyes.
“The companies that are the best at best practices are the ones who ask for a risk assessment consultant to come on site,” says Pruellage. “They’re the companies that tend
to fare better.”