Textile Fires

Forensic Services Newsletter

Changes in the world textile trade are expected to result in insurers looking hard at any textiles fires in certain countries over the next few years. Figure 1 shows how trade has changed in the past 20 years, with newly industrialized countries losing at the expense of others. This is only an indicator of what is to come, with China and India expected to dominate world trade in textiles and clothing starting next year when the United States and other industrial countries have to remove restrictions on imports.

The WTO predicted that China alone will account for more than half of the global textile market following the end to the quota system that has governed international trade in textiles since the 1960s.

Textile fires are important in both fire history and insurance. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911, with the loss of 146 lives, remained the largest loss of lives in an industrial fire until 1993 when the Kader fire in Bangkok caused the death of 188 workers (Figure 2). While the first had a profound influence on industrial safety legislation, the same cannot be said for the second.

Figure 2 Left: Covered area between wings of building, before the fire.     Right: After fire.
Figure 3 Lint deposits on the top of a ceiling above textile machines.

A feature of textile fires that bedevils the insurance industry is the buildup of lint, which promotes fire spread. While it is reassuring to tour a modern factory with automated machines sucking up loose particles, it is another matter to go into above-ceiling spaces and see trusses and hangers festooned with lint built up over years (Figure 3).

In modern factories, lint can also accumulate in underground ducts and fire can spread from location to location via these.

Figure 4 Corrosion to plugers on the head of an embroidery machine.

Even when a fire is successfully confined to above the ceiling, fire fighting water and smoke can cause rapid corrosion of the machines at Figures 3 and 4. Textile machines have their working parts exposed. The combination of corrosive elements, vulnerability and sensitivity to surface finish can result in significant loss (Figures 4); even when the machines are not themselves burnt and restoration companies are quickly appointed.

Textile fires also have a chequered history when it comes to arson. Textile fires, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, played a significant part in Forensic companies setting up in SE Asia in the mid 80's. At that time, one adjuster in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, was ensuring that burnt machines at his fire sites were subsequently crushed because he suspected the same machines were turning up at successive fires.

Figure 5 Very large textile fire in the Philippines.

Again in Malaysia, it was a fire involving textiles that became the first repudiation of a loss on the basis of forensic evidence, to be upheld in a court of law1;. The same occurred in the Philippines 2,3. In another very large textile fire in the Philippines (Figure 5), reinsurers refused to pay on the basis that the factory that burnt was not as described in the pre-risk survey. This was later settled out of court.

While our fire investigation history does not extend as far back as the Triangle fire in 1911, all the other references in this newsletter are for fires investigated by Forensic Services. We look forward to your continued support.

1 High Court, Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Civil Suit No. 23-1034 of 1986. [Brighton Industries (M) Sdn Bhd Vs Supreme-QBE Insurance Bhd]
2 Philippines Regional Trial Count-Malolos Bulacan-611-M-91. [H & L Manufacturing Co Vs Federal Phoenix Ass Co Inc]
3 Bulacan District Court, Philippines. Crime Case No. 711-M-98. [State Vs Superior Knit Craft]


Barry Dillon

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