Risk Management

Managing Risks with EPS (Sandwich Panel)

Over the last 15 years, significant losses have occurred associated with large fires in which sandwich panels (EPS) have been a feature. Many have related to risks within the food manufacturing sector.

 Expanded polystyrene is flammable. Polystyrene is classified according to DIN4102 as a "B3" product, meaning highly flammable or "Easily Ignited." As a consequence, although it is an efficient insulator at low temperatures, its use is prohibited in any exposed installations in building construction if the material is not flame-retardant. It normally is concealed behind drywall, sheet metal, or concrete. The sheet metal can be either aluminum or metal. Foamed polystyrene plastic materials have been accidentally ignited and caused huge fires and losses, for example at the Düsseldorf International Airport, the Channel tunnel (where polystyrene was inside a railcar that caught fire), and the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant (where fire breached a fire retardant and reached the foamed plastic underneath, inside a firestop that had not been tested and certified in accordance with the final installation).

Over the last 30 years there has been a rapid growth in the use of PIP, with its core of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), used in cold storage facilities. PIP is light, cheap, easy to assemble and easy to maintain.

However, in recent years there have been a number of major fires globally, some accompanied by loss of life. In the last 24 months there have been two multi million dollar fires in Australia involving this type of material.

This has made the insurance industry nervous. We first experienced this reaction in 2001 after some massive fires in Europe. The result of this nervousness is a shrinkage of insurance underwriting capacity with some insurers pulling out of the market. Those that remain have refocussed their attentions to the so called ‘EPS risk’. 

Sandwich panels do not start a fire on their own, and where these systems have been implicated in fire spread the fire has often started in high risk areas such as cooking areas, subsequently spreading as a result of poor fire risk management, prevention and containment measures.

 Prevention of ignition and containment of early fire spread are critical. 

  • EPS panel ceilings are very susceptible to fires starting beneath them;
  • Fires under EPS panel ceilings spread very rapidly, the fire spreads across the ceiling as the panels progressively delaminate and the EPS melts and vapourises to fuel;
  • fires can also spread inside wall and ceiling panels, before bursting out at the panel seams;
  • the fire load from EPS wall and ceiling panels is enough on its own to cause deformation and collapse of major steel roof beams;
  • fire brigades are unlikely to contain a developed EPS panel fire and they will not enter the building due to the risk of collapse.

Specific and detailed risk assessment is crucial. If you cannot provide high levels of risk management due to the nature of the processes in the business in question and the risk of ignition is high then the use of such panel systems with high fire risk characteristics should be carefully considered.

Some applications, including stand-alone cold stores and panel systems used as external claddings in areas where arson risk is low, have experienced few fire losses. In low risk situations such as these there can be greater flexibility in choice of panel system, taking account of other business needs such as hygienic environments and insulation properties.

Inevitably many situations will fall between clear cut ‘high’ or ‘low’ risk scenarios. Here the degree of financial exposure is likely to drive insurers’ decisions. Fire stop panels and other fire safety management measures have a significant role in such situations, and the importance of a demonstrated ability by facilities managers in making sure that such systems are robust cannot be over-emphasised.

The risk of combustible sandwich panels contributing to the spread of fire may be significantly reduced by the maintenance of a good standard of fire safety management. With respect to combustible sandwich panels, the following factors are of particular importance in assessing the hazard that the panel(s) represent:

  • 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 or 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.
  • 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 not possible, any gaps should be adequately fire stopped.
  • Electrical cables passing through sandwich panels should always be enclosed in a metal conduit.
  • 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.
  • The building should be sub-divided into a number of fire resisting compartments wherever practical.
  • The use of full sprinkler protection to the factory should be encouraged.
  • Unauthorised access to the external cladding should be prevented to reduce the possibility of an arson attack.

For Existing Buildings

It is easy to say “fit sprinklers” but this is often a very difficult solution. If sprinklers could be fitted that is great but how? Apart from the issues of cost and the impracticality of retro fitting with sprinkler systems, could we be increasing the risk fitting into existing panelling?

 

The major factor considered by insurers is a recognition that the Insured is proactive in minimising their own risks and not solely relying on an insurance company if anything goes wrong. Every operator with this type of building material should have a carefully created risk management plan for the building and the associated operations.

 A Risk Management programme should include:

  • hot work controls;
  • ‘cold work’ controls for work carried out on insulation;
  • electrical installation and maintenance programmes including thermographic imaging;
  • dedicated fork lift charging areas outside the insulation envelope;
  • management of cooking equipment;
  • housekeeping practices including not storing combustibles against the outside of the building;
  • regular building inspections and prompt repair of damaged insulation panels;
  • when cutting holes in panels for services ensuring the exposed EPS is ‘sheathed’ or a collar is fitted;
  • plant maintenance, and where ammonia is used, providing gas detection;
  • site and premises security;
  • general awareness amongst staff and management of the potential problems, and how to action risk improvement.

 For New Buildings

It is recommended to install an approved sprinkler system if intending to install Cold Rooms using EPS. Preferably avoid EPS if possible, although there are some advantages of using EPS. A disadvantage are the insurance difficulties and the much higher cost to have such Buildings insured.

The material is fire resistant to the extent that if an ignition source is applied and then removed the material will usually self extinguish. However if the heat source is applied continuously the EPS will burn and give off dense and toxic smoke. If EPS has to be used, then the facility should be sprinkler protected.

There are now alternatives to EPS that can be considered. These are totally non-combustible panels such as those made from fibre glass ‘wool’. Alternatively a polyisocyanurate insulation foam can be used that has been subjected to large scale fire tests and certified by either the Factory Mutual (USA) or the Loss Prevention Council (LPC).

An issue for us Brokers is that EPS is fully disclosed to insurers and this involves educating our clients.

EPS Fire simulation 1

EPS Fire Demonstration

EPS Fire Demonstration 1

EPS Fire Demonstration 2

Claims Examples

Why use EPS Sandwich Panels?

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