Working Safely with Flammable & Combustible Chemicals

  • October 02, 2023
  • Blog

By taking proper safety measures, flammable and combustible materials are safe to handle during manufacturing, transferring, and shipping.   

The following guidelines can serve as a refresher for your chemical manufacturing business, or if you’re a chemical buyer, can help you understand what your manufacturer should be doing to protect its workforce and your investment.

What Are Flammable & Combustible Chemicals and What Risks Do They Pose?

As a subset of hazardous materials, flammable and combustible chemicals are defined in different ways by different authorities. 

There are numerous definitions of what a flammable and combustible material is, with regards to flashpoint and other characteristics. If you’re dealing with an OSHA issue, those definitions vary from what may be used for environmental compliance, transportation or even local fire code uses.  It’s important to know what codes apply to your application.  For example, OSHA’s revised definition of flammable generally considers a flashpoint at or below 199.4 to be flammable, however this often differs between regulators, such as EPA or USDOT.  

More generally, flammable chemicals ignite easily at ambient temperatures when exposed to flame, spark, or heat source, while combustible chemicals can ignite with some effort.

As their names imply, fire and explosion are the two biggest threats of these two classes of chemicals, though not the only ones. Flammable vapors with a vapor density greater than 1.0 are heavier than air and may accumulate in low lying areas.  This can increase the risk due to those areas may reach the flammable range for that chemical and result in a fire of explosion.

In recent years,  OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has also ramped up its emphasis on combustible dust in light of findings that the hazard led to 119 deaths across 281 incidents from 1980 to 2005. 

Combustible dust may be created by blending, handling, transferring, or packaging combustible solids and powders. In many dust explosion cases, the accumulation of combustible dust triggers a secondary explosion that is more violent than the initiating event.  This is often due to poor housekeeping practices and where dust has settled on hard-to-see surfaces.  Accumulation of dust as little as 1/32 of an inch, can be enough to cause an elevated dust hazard risk.  

Flammable and combustible vapors and dust may also pose both short-term and long-term health risks such as eye and lung irritation, headaches, drowsiness, nervous system and organ damage, cancer, and genetic defects.

It’s important to understand and properly manage physical and health risks when handling all hazardous chemicals.  

Flammables Safety at Seatex

Our Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) monitors all potential medium and high risk exposures to chemicals.

Examples of Flammable Chemicals

Some of the most widely used chemicals in manufacturing are flammable. These include:

  • ethanol: used in pharmaceuticals, fuel, and manufacturing as a precursor
  • methanol: used mainly as a base product or precursor in formaldehyde, acetic acid, fuel, and more
  • benzene: used to make ethyl benzene and cumene, which are used to make polymers and plastics, and resins and adhesives, respectively
  • acetone: a highly flammable chemical that easily ignites at room temperature, used as a solvent and in consumer products such as nail polish, varnish, and paint
  • xylene: used as a lubricant, clearing agent, solvent, precursor to polyester, and more

Assess and Control the Risks as Well as Possible

Many who have experienced fires or explosions first-hand can attest that the initial emergency response to a loss of containment involving flammable materials can quickly become insufficient, as these types of accidents tend to grow in scale. Thus, response plans to the risks posed by these classes of chemicals need to account for the specter of escalation. 

The starting point for developing such plans begins by understanding the chemical at issue: what its flash point is, what the suitable extinguishing media are, what PPE to wear, etc. 

Much or all of this should be included in the SDS and should be communicated to all personnel that will be handling it (see below). The SDS will help you procure the necessary emergency equipment and stage it near areas where flammables will be handled.

Flammables Safety at Seatex

Our Safety Management System helps us maintain an excellent Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR).

Offering Adequate Training and Supplying Vital Information

Because they are classified as hazardous, flammable and combustible chemicals will have SDS sheets accompanying each one, which you must make immediately accessible to anyone handling the associated chemicals. 

These sheets should be discussed in detail at your safety meetings so employees know the proper methods of storing and dispensing the chemicals, as well as the hazards of improper handling. Also walk through the necessary PPE that must be worn.

A discussion of the hazards should be followed by emergency protocols in response to spills, fires, and exposures. Walk through scenarios in varying degrees of magnitude, pointing out the location of emergency equipment (spill clean-up kits, eye wash stations, first aid kits) and advising on the differences between accidents that can be dealt with in-house and those that warrant evacuation and fire department and/or medical assistance. 

Flammables Safety at Seatex

Ongoing safety training is overseen by our in-house Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Department.

Staying Compliant

At the federal level, OSHA guidelines govern the management of hazardous materials such as flammable and combustible substances in roughly half of U.S. states. The rest operate under OSHA-approved state plans that are monitored by OSHA and must be at least as effective as the Administration is in protecting workers. Some of these may govern only government employees and not workers at private businesses. 

Guidelines related to fire safety can be found in nearly two dozen “subparts” of OSHA standards, but 1910 Subpart H – Hazardous Materials is the key section where flammable and combustible materials are concerned. You’ll find instructions on proper tank selection, storage level, location, and quantities, emergency systems, and much more. 

The best way to get started on your OSHA compliance journey is to use the Compliance Assistance Quick Start tool. You’ll have to not only develop and maintain a safety program, but may have to record-keep and report any injuries, as well. 

As you dig into the relevant OSHA standards you’ll find many references to partner organizations–non-profits and industry groups–that OSHA leans on to develop guidelines. These include the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), ASTM, Underwriters’ Laboratories, Inc., and American Petroleum Institute. 

NFPA standards are particularly popular for fire safety, many having been adopted across the U.S. and around the world. As one example, the State Fire Marshal Office in Seatex’s home state of Texas requires adherence to NFPA 1 Fire Code, an extensive guide to fire protection that includes hazardous materials handling and has been adopted by 19 states

The NFPA makes it easy to search what standards have been made mandatory in your area via its CodeFinder tool. The International Code Council (ICC) maintains an online code adoptions tool for its standards, as well. 

By using codes that show as applying in your area, you should be able to avoid inadvertently running afoul of local or state regulations on flammable and combustible materials. These governing bodies are under no obligation to inform you of the applicable laws, so it’s your job to be safe, rather than sorry. 

Handling Flammable Chemicals

Whether it’s operating a crane, driving a truck on-site, stacking pallets with a loader, or carrying containers manually, your employees should know how to handle flammable chemicals safely. 

PPE (personal protective equipment) is not sufficient protection on its own, but it is a must-have for working with flammables. The exact type of equipment may vary by chemical, so you’ll need to check the SDS for each flammable material being handled. It may call for:

  • anti-static shoes
  • grounding and bonding equipment
  • flame retardant overalls
  • PVC-coated gloves
  • goggles, glasses, or face shield
  • helmet
  • breathing apparatus/mask

PPE should be checked and cleaned periodically, as substances such as grease can affect shoes’ ability to resist building static, for example. 

Another critical component of safe handling is to ensure proper ventilation. This could be natural ventilation if the area can undergo six complete air changes per hour; the goal is to keep vapor levels below exposure limits, not the higher flammable limits. If there’s not enough natural air movement,  mechanical ventilation such as exhaust fans, rooftop or sidewall supply fans, gravity vents, and wall louvers may be necessary. 

Finally, flammable and combustible chemicals should always be handled far from any potential ignition sources. This includes any activity where sparks are being thrown such as metal cutting or grinding, or where open flames are generated such as blowtorching or even employees smoking. 

Storing Flammables Correctly

Proper flammable chemicals storage emphasizes a) the container and b) the location. 

For the former, stainless steel flammable storage cabinets are optimal. These help you segregate flammable chemicals and buy you time to evacuate and/or allow sprinkler systems to extinguish a fire. Look for models that meet OSHA and NFPA regulations and are independently fire tested and FM approved. Your state may also require your flammable cabinets to have self-closing doors.

For flammable liquids, safety cans with spring-loaded lids, pressure-relief cap, and flame arrester are best. The sidewalls will also be braced with reinforcing ribbing to help protect the can’s integrity during handling. Both containers and cabinets must be labeled with a “Flammable – Keep Away From Open Flames” warning sticker. 

Selection of proper storage locations includes both the where and how much. Flammable liquids should be kept at safe temperatures and away from exits, stairways, passageways, and potential ignition sources, as previously mentioned. 

It’s also best practice to limit the amount of flammable materials per control area to the extent possible. The NFPA offers guidance on determining the maximum allowable quantity (MAQ) of hazardous materials in a given control area, which technically is the maximum amount permitted before additional protections will need to be added. 

Build a Safety Culture

Culture (noun): The set of predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize a group or organization.”

When you have a culture of safety, the attitude that predominates among all your employees is that safe behavior is critical. There is a mutual expectation that everyone is contributing to maintaining a safe environment for the entire organization. 

In this type of company, leadership sets the tone that “just” meeting legal requirements may not be enough. There’s a comprehensive safety program in place that incorporates continual safety training and promotes transparency in all issues related to safety.

See how Seatex protects its people, property, and the environment.

Flammables Safety at Seatex

In our more than 57 years in business, we’ve garnered significant experience and a strong track record in handling flammable and combustible chemicals safely.  We have three designated flammable blending and reactor operating areas to keep our people safe while meeting our customers’ toughest challenges.