Preventing Accidents Involving Flammable Chemicals

by Katie Pfeifer, The Sandner Group

On October 30, 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released a safety bulletin entitled, “Key Lessons for Preventing Incidents from Flammable Chemicals in Educational Demonstrations.”  The release of the safety bulletin coincided with recent serious incidents in Nevada, Colorado, and Illinois. In each of those episodes, children were burned while observing laboratory demonstrations involving methanol. Methanol is a highly flammable liquid that carries risks similar to those involved when using gasoline. It can ignite at room temperature, resulting in dangerous flash fires. Despite the fact that the likelihood of a flash fire increases as the amount of methanol present increases, methanol is readily sold to schools and museums in four-liter containers.

The first incident occurred in Nevada on September 3, 2014. The accident occurred during a “fire tornado” demonstration, and 13 people, mostly students, were injured. When the fire did not ignite as expected during the demonstration, additional methanol was added from a four-liter bottle. It is likely that the fire was already smoldering when the additional methanol was added and as a result, the smoldering fire ignited the freshly added methanol. A flash fire raced back to the large bottle, and burning methanol from the bottle sprayed toward the audience.

The second accident occurred in, Colorado on September 15, 2014 at the SMART Academy. A 16 year old high school student was severely burned when a small pool of methanol was ignited during a demonstration of flammable properties. When the flame did not rise as high as expected, additional methanol was added from a bulk container which led to a 12 foot flash fire.

Less than five weeks after the incident in Denver, three Cub Scouts and one adult were injured during a methanol demonstration at a Cub Scout event in Raymond, Illinois. The demonstration involved pouring a container of methanol onto boric acid near an open flame. When the flame circulated back into the bulk container of methanol,  a flash fire occurred. The flash fire caused burns to several members of the group including serious injuries to one Cub Scout.

Much can be learned from the foregoing three incidents that will help protect staff and students. All three incidents were similar in the way the fires occurred – when bulk quantities of methanol were added to fires directly from the bulk containers, the resulting flash back to the bulk container caused a flash fire that engulfed members of the audience who were not protected by any physical barriers. Proper precautions and proper training could have prevented these accidents.

When the CSB investigated each incident, it was discovered that the accidents were not caused solely due to the inherent risks when using methanol. For example, it was discovered that the Nevada “fire tornado” demonstration was based on a YouTube video and other online resources.Descriptions of accident risks or comprehensive safety instructions were not provided, and the museum personnel who assisted and wrote procedures for the demonstration did not have adequate backgrounds in chemistry or safety. Similarly, the Denver accident involved a school that lacked adequate safety procedures and training in addition to a teacher who had received no training regarding the risks associated with the use of methanol. The incident at the Cub Scout demonstration was traced back to the same core problems. Lack of proper safety training and knowledge about methanol played a key factor in all resulting fires.

In light of these incidents, the CSB released a safety bulletin in an effort to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future. The safety bulletin made the following key recommendations as to the proper handling of any kind of flammable liquid:

  • Due to flash fire hazards and the potential for serious injuries, bulk containers of flammable chemicals in education demonstrations should not be used when small quantities are entirely sufficient.
  • When demonstrations necessitate handling hazardous chemicals, employers should implement strict safety controls including written procedures, effective training, and the required use of appropriate personal protective equipment for all participants.
  • A comprehensive hazard review should be conducted prior to performing any educational demonstration.
  • A safety barrier should be erected between the demonstration and the audience.

In-school demonstrations are a great way to engage students and get them interested in the learning process. However, lack of safety training and education on the hazards of such demonstrations puts an unnecessary risk on the demonstrator and the students. These risks can lead to serious accidents and massive losses. If a faculty or staff member is interested in performing a demonstration involving flammable materials, take action to ensure that the staff member is adequately trained and knowledgeable about the hazards involved with using the substance. For more information regarding the prevention of chemical accidents, please visit the CSB’s website at For questions regarding loss control and risk management, feel free to contact your Loss Control Specialist, thier numbers are located on the right.