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Navigating the Maze: Fire Code Compliance & MAQs

Posted by Amber Poltl on Feb 29, 2024 5:06:40 PM

 

Navigating the Maze: Fire Code Compliance & MAQs

According to the Chemical Incident Tracker, a database compiled by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, there were at least 322 hazardous chemical incidents in the US in 2023 — nearly one per day. 

This alarming statistic underscores the urgency of compliance with fire safety regulations and careful adherence to maximum allowable quantities (MAQs). 

Fire codes and their associated MAQs are critical components in safeguarding labs, particularly those handling hazardous chemicals. Even so, complying with the regulations — and the various associated reports and audits that come with it — can be downright painful.  

In this three-part series, we’ll explore the challenges and solutions related to chemical reporting and fire code compliance in the setting of life sciences labs.

Today, we’ll start by delving into some of the complexities of fire codes and MAQs, and the risks associated with non-compliance.

 

What are fire codes? 

Fire codes are regulations designed to protect lives and property by establishing guidelines for building construction, fire prevention, and hazardous materials handling. 

These regulations encompass a wide array of requirements, including storage and occupancy limits, fire protection systems, ventilation standards, and emergency response protocols. 

Not every aspect of fire code regulations applies directly to labs. However, many fire code provisions are relevant and important for lab safety and compliance.

 

What are maximum allowable quantities (MAQs)?

One crucial aspect of fire code compliance for labs is adhering to maximum allowable quantities (MAQs). 

MAQs are defined by the fire code and establish the maximum amounts of hazardous materials that can be safely stored in a facility without requiring additional safety measures. 

These limits vary based on factors such as the properties of the chemicals, storage methods, and the design of the building. 

 

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What are some common fire code compliance challenges for labs?

For life science labs, navigating fire code compliance and MAQs can be particularly daunting due to the dynamic nature of their operations and the stringent fire safety requirements involved. 

 

1. Different fire codes specify different limits and prevention measures 

“One of the key challenges is that there’s the International Fire Code (IFC), there’s NFPA, there’s any additional rules your landlord imparts — all of which may have some different nuances or cover different aspects,” explained Jeffrey Foisel, R&D Lab Process Safety Technology Leader at the Dow Chemical Company, in a recent SciShield webinar

For instance, NFPA 1 doesn't have specific occupancy classifications for labs. Rather, labs are assigned a classification based on their primary use, with distinctions between instructional and non-instructional labs.

NFPA 45 outlines additional requirements for the construction and protection of laboratories using chemicals. IFC/IBC has its own separate requirements for the amounts of hazardous materials that can be stored in a lab. 

Labs must work closely with their local authorities to understand which regulations apply and when.

 

2. Fire codes vary by state and municipality

Like most laws, fire codes vary from state to state. Most states base their fire codes on nationally recognized fire safety standards, such as those established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), as well as state-specific regulations tailored to address local concerns and conditions.

These codes are continuously revised and updated to ensure they reflect current knowledge and best practices in fire safety and prevention. 

For example, in Massachusetts, fire codes are developed through collaboration among fire officials, building inspectors, and other stakeholders to ensure comprehensive fire safety measures statewide. 

Additionally, municipalities within Massachusetts may have their own local fire codes or ordinances that address specific issues or requirements unique to that municipality.

Navigating fire code compliance can be especially tricky for businesses operating across different states or jurisdictions. 

For example, a biotech company with facilities in Massachusetts, New York, and California may need to adhere to different fire codes in each location, requiring careful coordination and monitoring to ensure compliance.

 

3. Regulations change frequency

Frequent changes in fire codes add another layer of complexity. For instance, NFPA 1 and NFPA 45 were both updated in 2024. 

However, the adoption of these new standards may vary across states and jurisdictions, with some still operating under previous versions of the standard.  

This means that labs striving for compliance must be vigilant about monitoring evolving fire code regulations and emerging standards. And while no one has a crystal ball to predict future regulations, having a handle on your chemical inventory can give you a leg up when new rules emerge. 

 

4. Your building design matters, too

The design of your building impacts everything from the number of occupants to the amount of chemicals allowed in a space. 

Which floor your lab is on, where firewalls are located, and whether the lab has sprinklers and storage cabinets can all impact your MAQs. For certain hazard categories, the use of cabinets doubles the MAQ. Same for sprinklers (or both!).

For instance, a lab unit on the first floor of a building might be limited to 30 gallons of Class IA flammable liquids. However, a lab unit located on the 7th floor may be limited to 1.5 gallons of the same flammable liquid.

If your building was constructed before the 1960s when sprinklers became required, that's going to reduce these amounts even more. 

Having access to information about the location and characteristics of each of your spaces is crucial for compliance. 

 

5. Labs encompass diverse activities, processes, and chemicals

Navigating the various fire codes becomes even more complex due to the diverse range of activities and processes undertaken in both commercial and academic labs. 

One challenge with labs, in particular, is that there are a large number of different chemicals, and you need to know the hazards of each one. 

From handling flammable solvents to compressed gases and other hazardous materials, just locating your high-hazard chemicals is a full-time job.

The complexity is heightened when multiple research projects or groups operate within shared spaces within a single control area or lab unit. 

Identifying how much of a chemical you have on hand compared to your maximum allowable quantities (MAQs) in these spaces is nearly impossible without the help of software solutions capable of providing detailed insights into chemical inventory quantities and locations.

 

6. Change introduces new risks

The dynamic nature of research and development in life sciences entails frequent changes, including new chemicals coming in and out of labs. 

Ensuring that these changes comply with all relevant fire codes and regulations requires careful monitoring of your chemical inventory. 

This is especially true for growing companies or research programs. “When you’re growing, you’re typically introducing a lot of new risk — new chemicals, or energy, or technology,” said Sarah Eck, PE, CCPSC, Sr Process Safety Engineer, DEKRA North America, in a recent SciShield webinar.

 

What are the risks of non-compliance with fire safety regulations?

When it comes to fire code compliance, there's a lot at stake. Beyond the obvious risks to lab personnel and property, inadequate reporting and compliance measures hinder emergency responders' ability to respond to a fire in the lab. 

Inadequate fire code compliance can also disrupt business operations and result in costly interruptions. For example, if a lab experiences a fire, it may need to shut down temporarily for cleanup and repairs, leading to delays in research projects and potentially impacting deadlines or funding opportunities.

Non-compliance can also lead to substantial financial penalties, legal ramifications, and reputational damage — for both the organization and those in charge. 

“If we knew that sprinklers were a good idea and we had money sitting around and we chose not to sprinkle the lab and then there’s a fire and people die, there’ll be a conversation about whether or not that was the appropriate use of funds,” explained John DeLaHunt, MBA, ARM, Risk Manager and Fire Marshal at The University of Texas at San Antonio, in a recent SciShield webinar. 

“Anyone who doesn’t want to be on the wrong end of that conversation at the news podium or in the boardroom should be prioritizing [fire prevention measures].”


Your next steps

Navigating the dynamic landscape of fire code compliance and MAQs is crucial for ensuring the safety of researchers, first responders, and communities. By understanding and anticipating common challenges with fire codes and MAQ, EHS, and Lab Ops teams can avoid the risks that come with non-compliance.

In the next two parts of this series, we’ll explore the role of regulatory reporting and how real-time reporting solutions can enhance compliance and streamline your reporting processes. 

 

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