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Safe Practices: Handling Flammable Liquids in the Workplace

Understanding the hazards of handling and storing flammable and combustible liquids is crucial for maintaining a safe workplace.

Large 55-gallon blue drums with a flammable liquid sticker on the side.

The vapor of flammable liquids can easily ignite and cause significant damage if not handled or stored properly. Flammable and combustible liquids release vapors and when these vapors mix with air in the right concentration and encounter an ignition source, it can result in a fire or explosion.

Here are the basics when it comes to flammable liquid safety:

  1. Always consult the Safety Data Sheet (SDS).
  2. It's the vapor, not the liquid, that ignites.
  3. Only use approved containers and equipment.
  4. Keep containers closed or covered.
  5. Ensure potential ignition sources do not come close to flammable liquids.
  6. Maintain adequate ventilation and avoid confined areas where vapors can accumulate.
  7. While transferring, properly bond and ground containers.
  8. Store flammable liquids separately by type and follow storage rules.
OSHA Standards 1910.106(e)(6)(i) and 1926.152(i)(6) In locations where flammable vapors may be present, precautions shall be taken to prevent ignition by eliminating or controlling sources of ignition. Sources of ignition may include open flames, lightning, smoking, cutting and welding, hot surfaces, frictional heat, sparks (static, electrical, and mechanical), spontaneous ignition, chemical and physical-chemical reactions, and radiant heat.
Flammable liquids cabinet.

While fire is the primary danger, exposure to flammable liquids and their vapors can pose significant health risks through ingestion, inhalation, or direct skin contact.

Wear appropriate personal protective equipment when handling flammable liquids. Choose PPE based on the specific flammable liquid being handled. Wear chemical-resistant gloves when handling flammable liquids. Use eye protection like safety goggles or face shields to protect against splashes.

Handling flammable and combustible liquids requires care and caution. Mishandling flammable liquids can lead to spills, vapor releases, chemical splashes on the skin or in the eyes, inhalation of harmful vapors, and other dangers. Keep flammable liquid containers closed when not in use.

Never handle flammable liquids near open flames, ignition sources, or smoking areas. Ensure there is good ventilation where flammable liquids are handled. Always use grounding and bonding when transferring liquids to prevent static electricity.

OSHA Standard 1910.106(e)(9)(iii) Combustible waste material and residues in a building or unit operating area shall be kept to a minimum, stored in covered metal receptacles and disposed of daily.

After use, place oily rags and other combustible waste in a covered, fire-resistant container that is labeled. Never leave oily rags in a pile.

A worker with a clipboard inspecting flammable liquids on the job site.

Proper storage of flammable liquids is essential to prevent the release of vapors that can ignite and to avoid dangerous reactions with incompatible chemicals. Flammable liquid storage areas should be dry and cool with no sources of ignition nearby.

The vapors from flammable liquids can be heavier than air and may settle low so adequate ventilation to prevent vapor accumulation is important in storage areas. Do not store flammable liquids near exits, stairways, or walkways.

Only use approved containers for storing flammable liquids. All stored containers should be in good condition, labeled, closed, and properly sealed. Regularly check for leaks.

OSHA Standard 1926.152(a)(1) Only approved containers and portable tanks shall be used for storage and handling of flammable liquids.

A safety can is an approved container, 5 gallons or less, with a spring-closing lid and spout cover that is designed to minimize the release of vapors and will safely relieve internal pressure when exposed to fire.

Storage cabinets should be clearly labeled as “Flammable - Keep Fire Away”. Shelves should be sturdy and without gaps to prevent leakage spill to lower levels. Doors on metal storage cabinets should have a 3-point lock and be raised at least 2 inches above the bottom of the cabinet.

OSHA Standard 1926.152(a)(2) Flammable liquids shall not be stored in areas used for exits, stairways, or normally used for the safe passage of people.

Ensure outdoor containers are in a shaded area, protected from direct sunlight to reduce the risk of overheating.

In buildings where business is conducted, only store the amount of flammable liquids that are needed for maintenance. Keep these in closed metal containers, safety cans, or a storage room that doesn't open to public areas.

Workers cleaning up a spill of a flammable liquid.

Not all flammable liquids react the same way. Some chemicals are more flammable than others. Storage and handling requirements are defined by the characteristics of each flammable liquid which includes the flash point, boiling point, quantity, proximity to other chemicals, and indoor vs. outdoor storage.

Do not begin work with a flammable liquid (or move flammable liquids into storage) unless you have been adequately trained in the proper handling and emergency procedures.

Safety Data Sheets (SDS) will provide the basic information about each chemical. If unsure or unknown, refer to the safety data sheet to determine the category of the flammable liquid that is being used or stored.

OSHA Standard 1910.106(e)(9)(i) Maintenance and operating practices shall be in accordance with established procedures which will tend to control leakage and prevent the accidental escape of flammable liquids. Spills shall be cleaned up promptly.

If a flammable liquid spills, immediate action is necessary. Isolate the spill area and use appropriate absorbent materials. Clean up spills of flammable liquids quickly. Know the location of spill kits and how to use them. Wash hands and arms with soap and water immediately following any skin contact with flammable liquids.

Flammable liquids cabinet.

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