Refrigerator Fire

Key Learnings

This incident illustrates the importance of proper use and storage of flammable materials.

Effects of the Incident

An explosion destroyed a refrigerator and most of its contents, which included materials related to an ongoing experiment. In addition, activation of the building sprinkler system limited fire and smoke damage but led to extensive water damage. The water flooded several labs and significantly disrupted research and teaching activities while the flood remediation took place. Fortunately, there were no injuries related to this incident since the fire occurred at night when no one was in the lab.

Description

A fire occurred in a laboratory when a small bench top refrigerator caught fire, exploded and blew the refrigerator door off its hinges. The explosion and fire activated the building sprinkler system, which put the fire out quickly and minimized fire and smoke damage, but led to flooding of nearby areas. Police, fire, and EHS personnel responded to the incident.

Causation

A mini refrigerator that was not approved for storage of flammables was used to store vials containing flammable solvents overnight. Sparks inside the refrigerator (from normal operation) are believed to have ignited flammable vapors from the loosely capped vials containing 80 percent hexane and 20 percent ethyl acetate (intermediate materials from a chromatography experiment).

Corrective actions to prevent reoccurrence

In this particular lab, flammable materials are now stored in a refrigerator approved for the storage of flammables (e.g. Laboratory-Safe refrigerator approved by UL or FM). Additional actions for this and other labs include:

  1. Do not put flammable materials in standard laboratory refrigerators or freezers. (If the refrigerator is rated for flammables, it will be clearly labeled by the manufacturer.)

  2. When storing flammable materials in a flammable storage cabinet, on the bench top or in a flammable-safe refrigerator, properly seal the containers (e.g. screw caps) to minimize the escape of vapors.

  3. When planning for experiments that require refrigeration of flammable research or intermediate materials, ensure that there is adequate space available in flammable-safe refrigerators so there is not a temptation or pressure to use a non-safety refrigerator. Also, if solutions only need to be cooled for a short period of time, consider using an ice bath or other alternative method.