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A call for checks and balances on timber fire retardants

  • 2 Dec 2016

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Lives, property and jobs in the UK are at risk from Government inability to enforce the Construction Products Regulation says Wood Protection Association director, Steve Young…

The inability of UK Government to enforce the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) relating to fire retardant treatments for wood is an open door for products of dubious performance. The situation is acute says lead industry body the Wood Protection Association (WPA).

Lives, property and jobs are at serious risk from the lack of adequate resources to take action on breaches of CPR compliance. The time has come for Government to heed the concerns of UK industry and:

a) Make CPR enforcement resources available
b) Start to take breaches of the CPR and Building Regulations on timber fire protection products seriously

The concerns of UK industry

Timber is growing in popularity as a construction material. This growth is driven by the sustainable and environmental benefits of timber compared with man-made materials.

Building Regulations often call for timber and wood-based panels used in construction to have an appropriate reaction to fire performance. The safety of those who will use the structure is the overriding objective.

There can be no short cuts to achieving the performance required. Factory-applied and controlled processes used in the UK to give wood fire retardant properties compliant with British Standards and the CPR are well established, have a performance track record spanning several decades and are technically underpinned by a substantial body of test data and third-party quality and performance certification.

UK industry has two specific concerns where claims made about reaction to fire performance and CPR compliance do not stand up to close scrutiny. These are:

  • The emergence of site-applied coatings that claim to meet all performance standards
  • Wood-based panels used in structural situations that are non-CPR compliant

WPA director, Steve Young, says that this situation is becoming the rule rather than the exception. He commented: “ The WPA has become increasingly aware that the concerns expressed above represent a trend throughout the UK construction industry rather than isolated cases.

If the trend remains un-checked then the likely consequences not only endanger lives and property but also call the reputation of timber as a construction material into question and undermine the profitability and jobs in those UK companies that have invested heavily to become fully compliant with the CPR.”

Coatings claiming CPR Compliant Fire Retardant (FR) performance

In recent years, wood coating products, often imported, have appeared in the UK with declarations of performance CE marked and claiming CPR compliance.

In some cases, CE marked wood-based panels have been supplied after an application of a so-called fire retardant coating which implies they are CPR compliant. WPA is keen to point out that the fitness for purpose of any fire retardant treatment must be verified for use specifically with the timber product and species being used, the actual size of the component involved and the installation design prior to its specification.

Canned products are supplied for brush or spray application to timber in-situ on a building site. Alternatively, they are applied by spray or other superficial application procedure by the timber supplier. WPA members are aware of several instances where no valid external verification of application quality control or fire performance certification by a notified body specific to the wood species and installation design of the timber elements for which long-term fire protection was supplied. This leaves the specifier of such products open to potential professional malpractice accusations in the event a fire does occur.

For some time now, the WPA has been urging specifiers to double check the validity and relevance of the claims made by flame retardants.

Steve Young explains: ”Any data supplied with canned products for site application cannot constitute a Declaration of Performance (DoP) for compliance with CPR requirements because the solution in the can is not the final product.

Unless the wood to which the coating has been applied is properly tested and classified in accordance with the European Standard EN13501-1 and the applicators have participated in the preparation and treatment of the test sample, there can be no objective evidence on which a DoP could be based. It should be understood that this is a contravention of CE Marking and CPR requirements and is illegal.”

Fire Retardant sheet materials used in structural situations that are non CPR compliant

Distributors placing imported wood-based panels (e.g. plywood), which have been subsequently fire retardant (FR) treated in the UK, on the market for structural applications must hold a valid Factory Production Control (FPC) certificate to verify CPR compliance. This is the end user assurance that the FR panels they buy are fit for purpose and will ultimately perform to the specification and standard claimed.

However, because pressure impregnation of wood-based panels can potentially alter strength properties, unless those properties are retested after treatment, then the CE mark on a sheet of e.g. FR impregnated imported plywood becomes invalid and the product is no longer CPR compliant.

Because the cost of re-testing is commercially prohibitive, this should mean that pressure impregnated, imported sheet materials are not normally used for structural applications requiring CE marking. The WPA says that in theory, this should give a significant commercial advantage to UK manufacturers of FR products that are truly CPR compliant, however, the reality is somewhat different.
WPA is increasingly aware that many contractors ignore the CPR requirements because it suits them, no one is monitoring them, it is cheaper or they rely on vague claims and/or wishful thinking from suppliers.

Steve Young says: “CPR compliance is currently often perceived by the construction sector as a luxury not as an essential.”

EC Report confirms lack of CPR enforcement

A 2015 report by Risk & Policy Analysts (RPA) for the European Commission, reviewing the Europe wide implementation of CPR, supports the WPA’s industry-specific case for enforcement action. It states:

“Industry perceives that more needs to be done in order for market surveillance authorities to fulfil their obligations and properly enforce the CPR. Industry stakeholders thus believe that the anticipated benefits of market surveillance (in terms of increased compliance with the CPR, reduction in products posing a risk to health and safety, increased credibility of the CPR and improved competitiveness for compliant operators) have not yet been achieved.

It can be concluded that there is a need for more visible market surveillance and enforcement action across the EU.

Conclusion

The regulations that require wood and wood-based panels to be treated to enhance their performance in fire in certain applications is foundational to providing safe working and living spaces for the public at large. The lack of enforcement of CPR requirements means that CE marking has become meaningless and devalued in the sector and resulted in the appearance of products that are unproven at best and ineffective at worst.

These shortcomings risk endangering lives and the reputation of the timber industry, as well as undermining the profitability, jobs and consequent investment of CPR compliant companies in the UK.

The WPA says it is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue and is calling on UK Government to give the CPR regulator, Trading Standards, the resources to tackle CPR enforcement.

Steve Young says that WPA is ready to engage with any Government department or authority to create the environment in which the UK timber fire retardant industry can continue to invest and grow providing products that fully meet the safety critical performance requirements of CE marked fire retardant treated timber and panel products.

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