The Glass is Safe, But Santa’s Out There…

Wrightstyle Limited is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of specialist glass and integrated steel and glass systems with an international client base. Simon Bennett, the company’s international sales director, explains why we should all beware of Christmas.

At Wrightstyle, we’re justifiably proud to be making the world a safer place. Our specialist steel and glass systems are increasingly being recognised as among the most advanced in the world for containing fire, blast and ballistic threats.

But there’s one threat that we can’t guard against because it’s a big, bad world out there, and particularly at Christmas. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) more than 80,000 UK citizens end up in A&E over the festive period – some 6,000 on Christmas Day alone.

And it’s not just kitchen burns, cutting your finger while peeling the potatoes, or children falling off new bikes or rocking horses. A few specific Christmas horrors are that since 1996, over 30 UK citizens have died by watering their Christmas tree while the Christmas lights were plugged in.

So far so stupid but, in a three-year period, 19 people have also died believing that Christmas decorations were chocolate. British hospitals report about four broken arms each year after cracker pulling accidents and five Britons are injured every Christmas in accidents involving out-of-control Scalextric cars. More predictably, another eight Britons crack their skulls whilst throwing up into the loo and end up in hospital.

Here at Wrightstyle, we can’t prevent any of those accidents. But we can, and do, prevent others. The International Association of Fire and Rescue Services estimates that, every year, there are between seven and eight million fires worldwide.

Fires cause between 70-80 thousand deaths and between 500-800,000 injuries. In Europe alone, there are up to 2.5 million fires and 25,000 fatalities every year. The World Fire Statistics Centre estimates the cost of fire in developed countries to be some 1% of GDP, with an average of one fire death per 100 fires – and average death rates of three deaths per 100,000 of population.

In terms of fire deaths per 100,000 of population, the most dangerous place to live is Russia, with 12.8 deaths. Russia is swiftly followed by Estonia (9.4), Latvia (8.4), Ukraine (8.0), Lithuania (6.7) and Moldova (5.0). The UK is comparatively safe at 0.8 of the population, roughly on a par with Ireland and Croatia – but worse than the best countries, Laos and Vietnam, that have a mortality rate of only 0.1.

However, looking at the number of fire deaths per 100 fires throws up a different picture. Here, again per 100,000 head of the population, Moldova comes out worst at 8.9. Russia and the Ukraine are not far behind (both at 7.9).

On that test, the UK is one of the safest places on the planet with only a 0.1 mortality rate per 100 fires – a statistic that demonstrates that, when fire breaks out, we’re relatively well-equipped to deal with it. Underlining that fact, in the year to March 2007, there were 448 fire deaths in the UK – a drop of 5%, and the lowest figure for over 50 years.

Primary fires (defined as being inside a building) fell by 5% to 156,800 – the lowest total since 1983. Within that figure, fires in residential property hit a 30 year low of 55,000 (down by 4%), while fires in other buildings – including workplaces and areas where people gather – were at their lowest since 1958 (down 6%).

That decrease is the result of several factors – for example, better building design, fire alarms, less flammable house furnishings, and faster response times from the fire services. But it’s the big building fires that have the greatest potential to do the greatest damage – both financially and to human life. This is where building and safety regulations have made a huge impact.

At Wrightstyle, we’ve seen a sea-change in risk management in commercial buildings. Only a few years ago, fire safety was an adjunct to that building’s design – a necessary inconvenience, but little more than that. Now, fire safety is at the heart of what good building design is about. It’s about designing in containment so that a fire can’t spread to other parts of the building, and it’s about designing in safe areas that can be used for escape.

It’s meant that we have had to change, alongside the evolution in fire and safety regulations. Our systems are now as aesthetically pleasing as aluminium, while giving the enormous safety advantages that only a steel system can give. We’ve also always sought to be at the forefront of fire, ballistic and blast safety and, with architectural specifications becoming increasing global, we have had our glazing systems tested under US specifications.

The addition of US test certification involved the hose stream test, no longer part of test regimes elsewhere, where a jet of cold water is aimed at the superheated glass and steel assembly immediately after the furnace test. It is about testing the structural integrity of the system against a building’s sprinkler system or the water jets of firefighters.

The hose stream test, regarded as being notoriously difficult, ensures that our systems are demonstrably among the safest on the international market, and underlines their versatility across the full range of both interior and exterior applications. Our development programme has also been about mitigating against new threats, and our latest multi-panel curtain walling system has been tested against a simulated lorry bomb attack – that’s a charge of 500kg of TNT-equivalent explosive set off adjacent to the test assembly.

In the test, carried out at RAF Spadeadam in Northumberland, the simulated lorry bomb attack was immediately followed by a simulated car bomb attack (100kg of TNT). The lorry bomb was detonated 75m from the test rig, whilst the car bomb was detonated at a distance of 20m to produce a higher pressure loading and shock on the façade.

The importance of those successful tests is that, in urban areas, between 80-85% of all secondary blast injuries are caused by flying glass. Our latest system, which looks identical to a non-fire rated system, has taken the glass from the bomber’s arsenal – and we’re now installing it internationally.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that that we can mitigate against all risk. Some, frankly, can’t be guarded against. Take Aeschylus, for example, the Greek playwright who died in 458 BC when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. (The tortoise survived, incidentally).

Other risks can be foreseen – for example, the pioneering Franz Reichelt who in 1912 fell to his death off the first deck of the Eiffel Tower, while testing his fantastic new invention, the coat parachute. Or, on a glass related theme, the Toronto lawyer who in 1993 also fell to his death, after he threw himself through a window on the 24th floor of the Toronto-Dominion Centre in order to prove that the glass was unbreakable. (It wasn’t ours, by the way).

Just remember that Christmas is especially dangerous. There may be 1,200 chainsaw accidents a year, but there are over 16,000 people injured by their sofas. Socks and tights account for over 10,000 injuries (mainly falling over while putting them on), and vegetables account for more than 13,000 injuries. (The statistics don’t list which fruit and vegetables are most dangerous, so best keep clear of all of them).

If you go out, don’t walk near birdbaths (311 injuries) or wear wellington boots (5,600). Don’t even think about putting on trousers (5,900), don’t be rude to the breadbin (91) and be very wary of that tin of talcum powder (73). If you can’t eat, relax in the living room, or wear clothes, don’t make the elementary mistake of thinking that the bathroom is a safe place. There are over 700 sponge and loofah accidents per year – and toilet roll holders, strangely, account for another 300 visits to A&E.

The one thing you can acount on is the growing safety of your home and office, not least because of the research and development of companies such as Wrightstyle.

Have a very Happy Christmas!

More About This Company