Hairspray and robots: the new risks of storing hazardous goods in a high-tech world

  • Michael Stuckings, Operations Vice President, Chief Engineer, Australia Operations

Facility management technology is evolving swiftly — and so are risk profiles. One of the best ways to ensure we’re harnessing technology’s benefits while mitigating new risks is to ground protection schemes in evidence whenever possible. But as technology and distribution models continue to transform, this can be easier said than done.

External factors, such as the growth of e-commerce and same-day delivery models, are driving demand for more — and bigger, more advanced — warehouses. A UBS report forecasts a 13 per cent growth in e-commerce this year with the market analyst expecting e-commerce’s growth to drive demand for additional industrial and logistics spaces closer to high-density locations.

Facility managers are seeing just as much technological change from within, including data analytics that promise to make operations faster, smarter and cheaper. As international competition looms and consumer expectations soar, everyone from manufacturers to wholesalers to retailers are looking for ways to deliver goods more quickly and efficiently. In many cases, this means automated solutions like robots and shuttles.

We’re already seeing this play out in real time. Woolworths’ fully automated distribution centre, a $562 million investment, went live earlier this year, making it the largest warehouse in the country. Meanwhile, their main rival Coles announced an even larger investment in automated distribution centres in Queensland and New South Wales.

It’s a lot of change in a small space of time. But what does all this rapid change mean for the storage of dangerous goods, which frequently pose challenges in even the most static of environments? While automated technology offers clear benefits — the potential to reduce supply chain costs, time to market and human error, for instance — it does deepen the need for a discussion about how to strike a balance that includes robust, evidence-based fire protection systems.

Storing hazardous materials

The storage of aerosols and liquids that burn (or “ignitable liquids,” a term we prefer) can present significant fire hazards. Those materials include common household items that many retailers and wholesalers are likely to store, such as hairsprays, cooking oils, paints, lubricants and automotive products.  

A wide range of factors can affect fire classification and the overall risk profile, including:

  • construction of the bottle or container
  • the content itself, including the miscibility or flash point of ignitable liquids
  • secondary packaging (e.g. cartoned versus uncartoned)
  • storage arrangement and density
  • in aerosol products, the type of propellant.

The storage facility itself can impact fire hazard, especially when it comes to factors like storage height, ventilation and ceiling height— a major consideration as businesses look to increase storage potential through expansive facilities.

There are existing guidelines on how to store these types of materials, but there’s no protection criteria for some arrangements of commodities — for example, we can’t protect palletised, on-floor storage of many automotive aerosol products.   

Additionally, minimising risk depends on understanding all parameters involved. And the introduction of new, intricate hardware can complicate attempts to understand those parameters.  

Adding new hardware to the mix

Even a single misplaced printer poses a fire risk in warehouses, especially those storing aerosols or ignitable liquids. Suffice to say, throngs of automated carriers can present an even greater fire risk and may heighten the chances of it spreading faster.

There are other trends that come with increased automation in warehouses, such as the use of open-top plastic containers instead of traditional closed-top cardboard or wooden containers. In the event of a fire, these can catch sprinkler water and block it from reaching lower levels.

While there are ways to protect against the risks of new technology and the storage of (most) hazardous materials, additional and novel layers of complexity can make it more challenging to base your protection schemes in evidence.

The importance of testing

The need for evidence-based protection schemes grows parallel with technology’s exponential advances. Testing is perhaps the most comprehensive way to meet that need, but the type of testing will determine how much you can extrapolate.  

  • Small-scale testing can be useful for determining flash and fire point, as well as providing like-to-like comparisons, but can’t define the fire hazard created by a liquid.
  • Intermediate-scale testing doesn’t reproduce the actual scale of storage but can help us get an idea of the hazard. Still, it’s not suitable for defining protections or predicting an outcome without validation from full-scale testing.
  • Full-scale testing replicates real-world conditions as closely as possible, including recreating the commodity itself, roof height, storage dimensions, arrangement and protection schemes. This type of testing tends to demonstrate the most realistic measure of the hazard.

Here’s an example of what’s at stake with different levels of testing.

Our organisation conducted intermediate-scale testing of two-litre containers of vegetable oil. After manual ignition, oil began pouring directly onto the flames without igniting, resulting in a modest fire that didn’t activate the sprinkler system for a whopping 20 minutes. Seeing those results, a person might be tempted to conclude that the risks of storing vegetable oil are comparably limited.   

Full-scale testing confirmed a more dangerous reality. After ignition, the fire was larger and faster-spreading than that of the intermediate-scale test, triggering the first sprinkler operation in a little over a minute. It highlights something I repeat often: fire doesn’t scale.

Leaning on existing guidelines can go a long way to minimising the risk of hazardous materials and new technology. However, with no available protections for certain aerosol products or ignitable liquids, along with rapid technological evolution that’s overturning traditional distribution models, many facility managers will benefit from going one step further to partner with specialists and/or invest in their own testing.

And, as always, the industry will need to continue broader discussions about how to work faster, smarter, cheaper — and safer.

This article original appeared in Facility Management Magazine.