Last month, Kentucky firefighters responded to a fire inside a large, industrial dryer at the R.R. Donnelley plant located in Dannville. The dryer is used to dry ink on magazines after they are printed, using extremely hot air. According to Fire Chief Woody Ball, an unidentified mechanical failure caused resin to build up inside of the dryer and catch fire. Ball also stated that while the dryer normally functions at temperatures close to 350 °F, the temperatures increased up to 600 °F just before the fire ignited.

Upon arriving on scene, firefighters found that the fire was contained within the dryer. Plant maintenance staff had used fire extinguishers to control it before the fire department’s arrival, while other staff members evacuated the facility. Chief Ball stated, “Employees had already used fire extinguishers on it. We just kind of stood around and watched it. We didn’t even put any water on it. That would have just made it worse.”

According to the fire department’s reports, firefighters worked together with plant personnel within the incident command system to formulate a plan that allowed the dryer to cool-down while providing overhaul inside the dryer.

The six million dollar industrial dryer is reportedly the first one of its type in the world, at 63 feet long and 1.5 stories tall. At the time of the incident, it was in normal operation and staffed by five Donnelley personnel. The dryer sustained moderate damage from the fire that included melted hoses and wires.

At the time of the fire, there were 320 employees on site and no injuries were reported in the incident. R.R. Donnelley is a Fortune 500 company that provides print-related services and is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. As one of the largest printers in North America, operations have included commercial printing, print fulfillment, and business communication outsourcing for over 140 years.

Many details of this incident have not been reported at this time and are unknown to us. We can, however, make some assumptions using the information given, and draw some useful conclusions. Industrial dryers that process combustible materials are susceptible to the accumulation of combustible residue on interior surfaces of the dryer and exhaust duct work. The residue can eventually ignite due to self-heating, or be ignited by other sources, such as an exposed burner flame, or from other transient sources of heat.

It appears likely that combustible residue accumulated in this dryer and found an ignition source. The key lesson to be learned from this is not a new one.  The lesson is this:

Industrial dryers that process combustible materials should be cleaned on a regular frequency appropriate to the operation to prevent unsafe accumulations of combustible residue. Failing to do this exponentially increases the risk of a serious fire. Thorough cleaning at the proper frequency coupled with effective preventive maintenance of the equipment makes it very unlikely that a serious dryer fire will ever occur.

  By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.