DUBAI // Police have warned of the growing deadly practice of illegally dividing warehouses into rooms and housing workers in them.
Warehouse fires have increased by 22 per cent this year.
Ahmed Ahmed, the head of the fire investigation section at Dubai Police forensic department, said last week that many companies add illegal partitions to their warehouses, especially by dividing the building into two floors, and house their workers in them to maximise the use of the space.
"This cause fires and workers living in these adjusted warehouses are the victims," said Mr Ahmed.
Workers sleeping in a perfume factory in Al Qouz industrial area were killed on August 11 when the building burnt to the ground. The fire broke out just before 1am and sleeping workers could not escape. Firefighters quickly had the blaze under control, but were unable to save the workers.
Dubai police investigated 38 warehouse fires in the first 10 months of this year, a 22 per cent increase compared with the same period last year. There were 31 such blazes between January and October of 2009. The main causes behind fires in warehouses are poor storing practices such as the random placement of flammable material and exceeding a building's storage capacity, according to the Dubai Police forensic department.
"Many companies put their workers' lives at risk in [the] case of fires especially [when] many of the stored items are placed in front of the emergency exit," Mr Ahmed said.
A Dubai civil defence spokesman said that although fire in warehouses contributed to only seven per cent of the total number of blazes in the city, they had a huge impact.
"Their scope is much bigger because they spread very quickly and it also involves big losses including financial losses for the national income of a country," he said.
"Therefore, we take any violations seriously and we have put in place a comprehensive system to ensure the safety of lives."
As per civil defence regulations, there needs to be a safety space of 1 to 1.5 metres between the stored items and the ceiling. There should also be clear corridors between the stored items to facilitate movement. Flammable materials should not be stored along with chemicals.
"We carry out routine inspections on warehouses, and companies that do not follow our regulations are penalised," said the spokesman. Violators could face fines up to Dh150,000 as well as have their warehouse shut down depending on the seriousness of the offence.
However, the civil defence spokesman said that their increased activity had helped reduce these practices among warehouse owners and companies.
"Two years ago, we started a campaign targeted at warehouses and labour accommodations ... and we have experienced some good results since then," he said.
It is an opinion shared by Mohammed Ali, a technical engineer at a glass and aluminium factory in Dubai, who said he had seen a decline in the practice.
"Until last year, I noticed so many people living in warehouses that were partitioned but now, with rents coming down, I think companies have shifted their workers to buildings," he said.
"However, I believe if the authorities investigate further in some of the industrial areas they will find some small companies that house workers in warehouses.
"This is so dangerous because there are machines and other equipment stored in these warehouses with no safety measures in place."
The practice seems to be more common among smaller warehouses.
* With additional reporting by Afshan Ahmed