Every October I try to write about fire safety in accordance with National Fire Protection Month. This year the saga continues into November since there is so much fire safety information to discuss! The basics of fire safety are important to review- fire extinguisher training, fire evacuation drills and more. But there is much more to consider, and when you dig deep into all of the fire regulations that affect laboratories, the overall safety picture becomes clearer.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has a written Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals (NFPA 45). This comprehensive set of regulations must be adhered to by labs, and many times other regulatory and accrediting agencies (such as CAP, for example) use NFPA 45 as a source for their own lab fire safety standards. One such regulation covers the storage of flammable chemicals inside of refrigerators, freezers, or coolers.
NFPA 45 requires that any flammable liquids that must be stored at cool temperatures must be placed inside of a unit (refrigerator or freezer) that is designated by the manufacturer as “explosion-proof” or safe for the storage of flammable liquids. These special units must be labeled with signage indicating that flammables may be stored within. In fact, the standard even requires that refrigerators and freezers that are not safe for such storage should be labeled as well. The sign might say, “Danger: not for flammable material storage.” This means that every unit in a lab where flammable chemicals are used should have some sort of label on it indicating what type of storage is allowed. Cold storage units may be modified for safe flammable storage, and these need special labels as well.
While these regulations may seem extreme, it is important to remember that chemical explosions do occur, and many have occurred inside these laboratory storage units. In a standard refrigerator, electrical equipment (such as lights or motors) are not adequately separated from the inside of the unit, and any electrical sparks can ignite flammable vapors to create disaster.
The next flammable storage issue to consider involves the use of flammable storage cabinets. In general, if a lab has more than one gallon of a flammable liquid in each 100 square foot space of the department (two gallons if there is an automatic fire extinguisher system), those chemicals should be kept inside of a flammable cabinet. Chapter 57 of the International Fire Code (IFC) requires that these cabinets have well-fitted, self-closing doors.
The IFC has not been adopted in every U.S. state (although it has been adopted in 42 states), and your local fire authority has the final say in the requirements. It is a good idea to purchase flammable cabinets with self-closing doors. There are door-closing adaptors that can be purchased, but in some cases, the use of these adaptors may damage the cabinet door and inactivate the function and warranty for the cabinet. To see if your state has adopted the IFC, go to this web page: https://www.iccsafe.org/wp-content/uploads/Code_Adoption_Maps.pdf
If you search the internet, you can find many images of laboratory fires and explosions. Understanding all of the complex fire safety regulations may seem tedious, many of the standards exist for good reason. Flammable materials are a fixture in many lab departments, and the safe storage and handling of these hazardous materials is critical to make sure that staff remain healthy and safe. Preventing laboratory fires and explosions is one vital piece of an overall successful laboratory safety program.