By David Laks

A worker performing routine maintenance at a food processing plant failed to properly protect a plastic conveyor belt, leading to a fire that caused $17 million in damages. The cause: hot work, which is one of the most common causes of fires and losses in manufacturing, especially in food processing facilities.

But this loss could be fully preventable – by developing and implementing a robust hot work program.

What is Hot Work?

Food processing facilities have a higher risk of hot work fires than other manufacturing facilities, due to the equipment and materials found in these facilities. Hot work includes activities such as welding, cutting, grinding, soldering, torch-applied roofing. Some common fuel sources include plastic conveyor belting, insulated panels, wood, cardboard or paper, plastic wrap, and cooking oil – all of which feed a fire.

The danger with hot work is that sparks can travel unnoticed and reach areas that are not immediately obvious, such as the ventilation system or even a lining inside a piece of equipment. And when a fire begins in a hidden area, it can go unnoticed until it leads to a significant blaze.

Developing a Preventative Hot Work Fire Program

To protect your workers, your facility and yourself from a devastating hot work accident, take these preventative steps:

  • Perform hot work only in designated areas. These areas should be well ventilated, free of combustibles or fuel sources and equipped with a fire extinguisher.
  • If work can’t be done in a designated area, ensure the hot work permit has been issued and posted. Some items on the permit checklist include:
    • Removing all combustibles where possible, otherwise covering the area with flame-proof covers or metal guards
    • Ensuring available sprinklers or other fire protection is operational
    • Ensuring welding/cutting equipment is in good repair
    • Turning off ducts, conveyors or augers that may carry sparks to distant areas in the facility
    • Providing shields when cutting is done near walls, partitions or ceilings
  • Post a fire watch person. This person will monitor the area for fire – from the moment work begins and up to four hours after the work has been completed. The monitoring should be continuous for the first 30 minutes and should occur every 30 minutes afterward. The fire watch person should be supplied with a suitable extinguisher and is trained in its use. The person performing the fire watch should be listed on the Hot Work Permit

The permit should be issued by a fire safety supervisor/appointee who has inspected the area and confirmed that appropriate precautions have been implemented.

Once the hot work program has been developed and communicated (both internally and to outside contractors), it is critical to conduct an internal audit to ensure its implementation. A robust hot work program is useless if it isn’t being followed properly. But when everyone involved in any hot work activity –– is on board, your facility will be safer and more reliable.

Contact HUB’s risk specialists to learn more about developing a robust hot work program to fit the needs of your food processing facility and training your employees on safer workplaces.