Covering All the Bases

Case Study

Ironic as it may be, rules can sometimes cause problems, and at other times, create solutions. Such was the case at Johns Manville’s Richmond, VA, facility, which recently encountered a loading dock seal fire hazard that finds its roots in federal regulations and associated trends involving trailer lights. But thanks to the company’s own safety rules —along with critical decision making on the part of Johns Manville officials— the potential for loading dock fires at the plant has been dramatically reduced.

Tony Moore, manager of services at the facility, said there was a time when he never suspected the potential for loading dock seal fires. But, he says, times have changed and companies throughout the United States should sit up and take notice. “We pride ourselves on our excellent safety record, and because of that, we made a conscious decision to take a closer look at loading dock seal fire hazards,” Moore says. “I strongly recommend that other companies do the same because this sort of problem can easily catch people off guard.”

The More You Know
Lack of awareness is a key reason why many companies would never suspect a dock seal fire in this day and age. What many have yet to learn, however, is that a number of factors have combined to make facilities more susceptible to the problem. One of the factors stems from federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, which requires all trailers over 80 inches wide to have three rear identification lamps and two rear clearance lamps on the top back of the trailer. At the same time, a growing number of tractors are now equipped with larger alternators to power an array of on-board systems, such as TVs, VCRs, microwaves, and even satellite dishes. The combination results in more and hotter marker lights. Tests have shown that trailer marker lights, left energized against a typical compressed dock seal head pad, can generate temperatures at the bulb in excess of 900° F.

The other half of the fire-hazard equation involves a common industry misconception about materials that make up fire-retardant dock seals. Typical dock seals may be sold with optional fire retardant foam and/or fabric. The misconception, however, is that the fire retardant materials means the dock seal is fireproof. Unfortunately, it’s not. Only fire-resistant measures can prevent a fire.

At Johns Manville, increased awareness of trailer marker trends, and the distinction between fire retardance and fire resistance, helped the company gain an edge in its quest for unparalleled safety.

Meet Johns Manville
Johns Manville, a Berkshire Hathaway company, is a leading manufacturer and marketer of premium-quality building and specialty products. The company manufactures and markets insulation products for buildings and equipment; commercial/industrial roofing systems; and engineered products, including high-efficiency filtration media, fibers, fabric and non-woven mats used as reinforcements in building and industrial applications.

The paper and foil converting facility in Richmond supplies other Johns Manville operations, as well as customers, with coated facing used on industrial- and commercial-grade insulation.

The warehouse shipping/receiving dock sees a high level of activity around the clock throughout the workweek as a normal part of the company’s just-in-time strategy. The shipping operation shuts down on some weekends. But that doesn’t stop independent truck drivers from entering the yard during plant downtime so they can be first in line for loading and unloading. In the past, the first in line was also allowed to back his trailer against the dock door and wait for loading to get underway. However, the practice quickly came to halt in the spring of 2001, when a fire broke out at the dock.

Fire Heats Things Up
The loading dock fire at Johns Manville occurred late one weekend night when an independent truck driver backed the trailer against the compression-style seal at the dock and crawled into the back of his cab to get some sleep. Unfortunately, the rig’s trailer lights were running hot and came into contact with the foam material inside the header seal via minor tears in the seal fabric. Extended contact with the hot lights caused the foam to ignite. Fortunately, an alert Johns Manville employee spotted the fire and extinguished it before it could cause any damage. Production at the facility also remained unaffected by the fire. In addition, shipping and receiving only needed to be temporarily shifted to a single dock while repairs were made. But despite Johns Manville’s ability to prevent losses, the incident caused considerable alarm.

“We were shocked that this could actually happen,” says Tim Bartos, shipping and receiving supervisor at the facility. “A loading dock seal that catches fire is simply unacceptable. Suffice it to say, it was a situation that needed not only immediate attention, but also a solution that works.”

Bartos immediately consulted with Andy Brown, field service representative of Arbon Equipment, to determine the best way to address the situation. In addition to newly enacted safety guidelines at the plant, the solution came in the form of exclusive technology from Frommelt Products Corporation. Brown introduced Bartos to the Frommelt Insulator Dock Sealing System, which includes the Firefighter header seal. Firefighter is the only fire-resistant, dock-sealing product on the market.

“What I learned from the experience is that major dock seal fires from trailer marker lights can and do start with minor tears in dock seal fabric,” Bartos said. “In addition, it’s easy to mistake small burn holes for tears. The bottom line is that companies need to regularly inspect dock seals for anything that looks like burn marks and/or tears and take immediate action to fix the problem.”

New Technology Introduced
When meeting with Johns Manville, Brown explained that technology doesn’t exist today to make dock seal foam and fabric fire resistant. When offered as an option the materials are only fire retardant, which means they will extinguish themselves if ignited. It does not mean that they will not start on fire.

Using Federal Standard 191A, method 5903, a chemical is added to the foam and fabrics during manufacturing to give them their fire retardant qualities. By definition, these materials must be able to extinguish themselves within 10 seconds after being exposed to a flame to qualify as fire retardant, which means they must actually begin burning first in order to work. Firefighter header seal technology, however, goes one step further than that by providing a fire-resistant solution.

The Firefighter header pad offers the only fire protection of its kind with the inclusion of a triple layer of heat dissipating and reflective foil between the fabric cover and the foam core of the head pad. As such, it limits the temperature that a marker light can generate to less than 400° F, virtually eliminating the danger of trailer marker lights causing a head pad fire.

In effect, the patented technology insulates the vulnerable foam from the heat source. The conductive metal surface of the foil also conducts trailer marker light heat laterally across the head pad, which greatly dissipates heat buildup at the point of contact. This serves to protect the fabric from melting through. For an added measure of protection, the foam core of the Firefighter header seal is also made of fire-retardant foam.

After seeing the benefits of the new technology, Johns Manville installed Firefighter header seals at both of its docks.

Fire Hazards Minimized
No loading dock fire incidents have occurred at Johns Manville’s since the incident in 2001. And it will not happen again, according to Moore, thanks to the company’s new approach to dock seal fire hazards.

The approach includes new rules that prohibit truck drivers from parking trailers against the loading dock seals during the weekend. As an extra safety precaution, barriers in front of the loading docks prevent trucks from parking trailers against the seals. In addition, strategically positioned signage asks drivers to turn off their trailer lights. Moore says the Firefighter header seal is also a critical component of the company’s enhanced loading dock fire-safety strategy.

“I never even considered the fact that a seal head pad could create a hazard,” Moore said. “With the new safety policies and the Firefighter header seal, however, I no longer have to worry about it because we’ve got the bases covered. And that’s a good thing.”

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