LAB SAFETY

Fanning the Flames

By Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ)  bio

Story #1: The fire started in the university chemistry laboratory when a research student used a flammable chemical too close to the open flame. It started as a relatively small fire, and if the student had been given fire safety training, he may have known how to handle it safely. Feeling that was a better idea to leave, the student left and called the fire department. The fire grew because of the large volume of flammable chemicals stored inside the department. As the fire department arrived, an entire wing of the building was engulfed in flames. The fire chief first went to meet with school representatives and quickly asked for an inventory of the chemicals used in the department. When the university could not provide it, the chief had to notify them that he could not let his firefighters enter the building without knowing the dangers within.

Story #2: In the large hospital histology lab, it was a common practice to place the large carboys of methanol on the shelf above the work space. A rubber hose was attached to the carboy and a clip was placed on the end so that it was easy to pour out the chemical as needed. One day the tech was working and she unclipped the rubber hose, but the clip fell off. The methanol freely ran out of the tube as it swung back and forth. When the methanol splashed onto the motor on the back of the heat block that was on the counter, all of the spilled methanol ignited. The tech was in the middle of flames, and her co-worker grabbed her, wrapped her with a fire blanket, and ran out of the room. They closed the door just as the remaining carboys of methanol caught on fire and exploded. The explosion blew out the windows in the lab, and the injured lab tech was scarred on her arms and face for the rest of her life.

Unfortunately, while some details have been altered, both of these stories are true. One of them occurred 30 years ago, but the other was more recent. Laboratory fires are a real danger, and adequately preparing for them is vital. That preparation means staff training, and although an annual computer module might meet written training regulations, it is not enough.

Memorizing what actions to take in a fire situation is important, and reviewing this topic in October, National Fire Prevention Month, is both timely and relevant. OSHA requires annual training for all staff in a work place where firefighting equipment is provided. While there is not clarity about whether or not hands-on training is required, CAP says it is strongly recommended. Actually using a fire extinguisher or a simulator is a more effective training method. A fire extinguisher can quickly stop the spread of a small lab fire, and hands-on practice will be far more effective than trying to read the instructions while the fire rages.

If a laboratory fire grows too large, always leave it to the professionals to extinguish. Staff needs to know when and how to contact local fire authorities, and evacuation procedures should be known as well. Again, regulations no longer call for staff evacuation drills, but that is clearly still a best practice. Have staff walk to the designated meeting location at least once a year. That way, lab employees will be able to evacuate and meet in an orderly and safe fashion. Being able to account for everyone will be crucial during a fire and you would not want to send rescue personnel into a fire because someone did not remember where to meet with their co-workers.

In the stories above, flammable chemicals played a role, and it certainly highlights some safety training that is necessary for handling and storing them. Make sure staff is aware of storage limits in the laboratory. Knowing the specifics may seem complicated since the regulations are based on specific classes of flammables, the presence or absence of an automated fire extinguishing system, and the design of the laboratory with regard to smoke and fire areas. In general, the lab should not store more than one gallon of any type of flammable chemical outside of a flammable cabinet in each 100 square foot area of space, and it should be stored away from any heat source.

Fire safety in the laboratory is no joke. Flammable chemicals, electrical equipment, and even compressed gases increase the chances that a simple spark can become a major conflagration. Make sure your staff can react and respond when the real event occurs. Provide training on fire prevention, fire-fighting, and evacuations can keep laboratory staff from fanning the flames into a true fire disaster.


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