Teamwork helped Consolidated Container Company’s Berwick, PA, plant quickly bounce back after a devastating fire. In the process, some important lessons were learned.
It was business as usual, September 18, 2013, at the Consolidated Container Co. (CCC) plant in Berwick, PA. The plastic-bottle manufacturer’s blow-molding processes were in full operation as the facility geared up for the busy apple-cider season. The 70-plus-year-old, 197,000-square-ft. facility was also meeting customer demand for containers for detergent, kitty litter, dairy products and fruit juice. Early in the second shift, however, things changed abruptly.
At 6:25 p.m. that September evening, an arc-flash incident led to a fire that quickly destroyed a large portion of the building. The event could have permanently shuttered the operation and put 110 full-time employees out of work. Instead, the response, remediation, and reconstruction activities that followed were committed, selfless, gracious and at times heroic—and the plant came back stronger than before.
When the unthinkable occurred
More than 30 second-shift workers were at the Berwick plant when a mechanical failure caused a power surge in a bus duct. “When the bus bar blew, it sent showers of sparks up through the ceiling,” recalls Bryan Statskey, Berwick’s Plant Manager and 35-year CCC veteran. The resulting fire spread quickly through the rafters.
The fire department was called, sprinklers activated and the fire alarm was pulled, triggering an evacuation of the plant. When nearby fire extinguishers proved ineffective against the blaze, plant maintenance personnel disconnected the plant’s power, shut off the gas and vacated the premises. “Because we regularly conducted fire drills, everyone was prepared,” says Statskey. “Nobody panicked and the evacuation was handled flawlessly.
Thirty fire departments arrived from multiple counties and worked for almost six hours to extinguish the fire—some returned overnight to deal with hot spots. The full picture of destruction began to sink in the morning of September 19. “Our huge facility was a darkened, charred, hulk of a building with no lights, phones or Internet, and about four inches of water everywhere,” says Clive Brown, CCC Regional Director. “It was incredibly stressful.”
The main production area was hit the hardest. Wooden frame structures were either saturated in water or had significant fire-related structural damage. The roof, constructed of wood decking, had extensive damage and gaping holes. The deluge of water from the sprinklers and fire departments washed down two stories to the main production floor, taking with it sheetrock, ceiling panels and insulation, which turned to mush. Support structures and other falling debris landed on machines below. Lights had fallen or were hanging down and windows were blown out.
The equipment damage was mainly from water: The resin regrind systems sat in sub-floor “pit” areas that became filled with runoff water, and the electrical control systems, including operator computer-entry stations, had extensive water damage. The fire itself was so hot that resin inside transfer piping melted, and electrical and communications cables were burned. Plant warehouse areas, which were filled with product and raw material, were covered in smoke and soot, and a layer of water covered the floor.
As bleak as things looked, the situation could have been worse. “The fire response and evacuation worked like it should,” says Rob Lee, Director of Engineering. “Everyone knew how to react and there was no injury or loss of life.” All sprinkler and fire suppression systems engaged, which prevented the fire creating a total loss.
Though the fire shut down the plant, within 48 hours a plan was in place to restore production as safely and quickly as possible. The plant’s existing disaster recovery plan was useful in this phase. “A disaster recovery plan is not cherished until it is needed,” notes Lee.Three days after the fire, it was announced that the plant would rebuild and everyone would continue to receive full salaries and benefits.
Creative scheduling was required to make that happen. This involved running three shift crews seven days per week. It was decided that everyone would receive 40 hours of pay regardless of the hours they worked, though some, like the mechanics, were needed almost constantly. “Scheduling disrupted our people’s lives, especially on nights and weekends,” says Statskey, “but they were good about it. We tried to be fair in how they were scheduled.”
Safety was paramount. Status meetings were held twice daily, including weekends, to assure safety and avoid conflicts. Construction crews, the cleaning company and numerous contractors and outside agencies had to be coordinated.
Motivated to return the plant to business, many employees volunteered before they were asked and performed jobs that they would not normally have done. They helped with cleaning, painting, sorting and emptying warehouse contents and conducting nighttime security patrols until the site was re-secured. Equipment assessments became a training opportunity, and new skills such as environmental testing were learned and put into practice. Leveraging in-house labor helped offset OEM and vendor costs, “which saved the company a lot of money and kept the plant employees working,” says Lee.
To accommodate the plant’s customers—all of which were notified immediately after the fire—CCC sister plants absorbed Berwick production. The transfer of molds, tooling and salvaged materials to those plants was accompanied by product specifications and packing instructions, along with CCC engineers that assisted in the transition. “There were no great delays and our customers were very understanding,” says Statskey. “One even offered to host a cookout for us.”
Employees salvaged and repacked what they could from the shipping and receiving warehouse, which had to be emptied and cleaned. Anything wet, smoky or food grade was scrapped. Consequently, more was destroyed than could be saved. Salvaged goods were shipped to other warehouses, and the Berwick facility’s warehouse became a staging area for crating and shipping damaged equipment.
Restoration and return to production
Poor lighting initially hampered efforts to locate damage. Mold growth and rusting parts exacerbated repairs. To address these problems, CCC’s engineering team created temporary power and water runs, and assessed all the equipment and chose what to rebuild or replace. The team also crated equipment for shipping and rearranged equipment and production lines. “Half the work was done by employees to save time and enable training, and half was done by OEMs and vendors,” says Bob Tanner, CCC’s Corporate Equipment Engineer. “Their responsiveness set the pace for our restoration.”
Ultimately, the plant replaced, rebuilt or refurbished all of the equipment damaged in the fire, as well as the roof and a good portion of the wood structure. Wire inside electrical conduits that had melted was re-wired. Moisture from crevices in the walls was removed to prevent contamination. Microbiological monitoring protocols were implemented and the entire plant was cleaned, disinfected and sanitized. Repairing the roof and trusses in below-freezing weather proved difficult, especially with the arrival of near-record snow.
Despite these and many other challenges, production resumed in phases, beginning in October 2013—just over a month after the fire—and continued through spring 2014. Today, CCC Berwick is back to 100%.
Regulatory compliance helped gain the necessary requalification to reopen. “We had to remediate the building to current standards, navigate building permits and comply with the electrical code, Safe Quality Food code and other regulations,” says Lee. Still, the plant was running sooner than anticipated thanks to the plant employees who provided support and helped speed the process.
The equipment and layout at CCC Berwick is now more efficient, thus improving plant and labor utilization. Among the changes:
- The plant runs two fewer production lines than before the fire, yet the same amount of production output is being realized.
- The facility’s new footprint includes newer machine styles that consume half the amount of electricty for the exact same throughput as that of the pre-fire operations.
- The plant also has new zero-waste grinders, and all grinders now sit above ground rather than in pits, which is safer and more efficient.
“We learned a lot about risk management, including maintenance, loss control, safety and engineering, and we are bringing that knowledge to our other plants,” says Paul Koziatek, CCC’s Corporate Director of Risk Management. He adds that while the fire-related property damage loss was estimated close to $5 million, the assistance from CCC sister facilities meant there was no production loss.
The fire and its aftermath also succeeded in bringing the Berwick plant family closer together. “Everyone had input and the decisions made were acted on without argument or conflict. That kept us motivated,” says Tanner. “We took pride in what we did, and it was a good learning experience.”
As shown below, personnel who participated in the cleanup, reconstruction and return to full production were recognized in May 2014 at a grand reopening ceremony for CCC Berwick.
In another show of gratitude, company management distributed more than $10,000 among 21 fire and rescue departments that responded so quickly and effectively to the plant’s call for help. MT
It Could Happen to You
As the employees of Consolidated Container Co. in Berwick, PA, learned, fire can start quickly and have devastating results. In their case, an existing, well-practiced emergency plan helped ensure that no injuries or death were suffered in the September 2013 conflagration that destroyed a large portion of their operation.
Following are several practices the Berwick crew had in place that can help any industrial operation survive similar emergencies.
• Create and implement an emergency response plan; train personnel in how the plan functions and conduct fire drills regularly.
• Create and implement a disaster recovery plan and review it annually to accommodate changes in personnel and equipment.
• Invite your local fire department to walk your plant periodically so they can see switch gear, bus ducts, power distribution panels and equipment locations.
• Emphasize arc flash training and remind personnel that training videos don’t do justice to the real-life blast potential of electrical energy.
• Take photographs of key aspects of your production process and include them with MPS (master production schedule) sheets to make it easier for other teams to run product for you.