Working with highly flammable chemicals is just part of the normal work week for many Laboratory Managers. Over the course of their career, lab staff are exposed to a wide range of flammable substances, which must be handled and stored correctly to maintain safety. And while unintentional negligence can result in incidents such as fires or adverse health effects, safety can be improved if the right measures are put in place to control the risks associated with laboratory chemicals.

Dangers of Working With Highly Flammable Chemicals

Aside from the risk of combustion — which can lead to injury, death and destruction of property — flammable liquids also present various health hazards, beyond burns.

Dizziness, asphyxiation or even tremors can be caused by excessive exposure to vapours that are emitted from flammable liquids.  

To control these risks effectively, you must first be aware of the dangerous properties of these substances. This will then allow you to devise a strategy to reduce the risks to your team, your lab and your environment.

Keep reading to learn more about highly flammable chemicals — and the safety issues they pose in a laboratory setting.

REMEMBER: One key safety measure to control the emission of vapours is to ensure that flammable chemicals are kept in secure flammable cabinets while they’re not being used.


Acetone or propanone is an organic compound and the simplest ketone with a chemical formula of (CH3)2CO. It is an important solvent often used as a cleaning agent in laboratories.

Acetone has other practical uses outside of the confines of the laboratory. Dermatologists use acetone for various facial treatments, including peeling off dry skin when treating acne.  Because acetone has a very strong ability to dissolve glue, it is also used to remove super glue residue from glass and porcelain.  


While acetone is a commonly found chemical, it is also a volatile and highly flammable substance.

This flammable substance is colourless and volatile. Acetone has an extremely low flash point of −20 °C, giving it the ability to readily ignite at room temperature.

IMPORTANT: Controlling flammable liquid spills is essential for minimising the potential for fire and explosion. Ensure that your acetone (and other Class 3 liquid) containers are secured with lids and free from chemical residue. Always store your flammable liquids in a safe and organised manner within Class 3 cabinets that feature compliant spill containment.

Acetone Exposure & Poisoning

Acetone exposure can cause both acute and chronic health issues if it is inhaled, ingested or comes into contact with the eyes of the skin. Acetone poisoning, while rare, occurs when there’s more acetone in your body than your liver can break down. A laboratory accident or mishandling of acetone can quickly result in a range of serious health issues.

Symptoms may include:

  • Lethargy
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Headache
  • Irritation to eyes, nose, throat and lungs
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Fainting

Chronic health effects may include:

  • Damage to kidney, liver and nerves
  • Birth defects
  • Reproductive issues
  • Potential for coma


Benzene is a hydrocarbon, which means that it only comprises of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

This organic chemical compound’s most common use is as an intermediate when producing other chemicals.

Benzene is a byproduct of fuel combustion and over half of the benzene produced in the world is used to make ethylbenzene. Ethylbenzene is used to make polymers and plastics. Over 20% of benzene goes into the manufacture of cumene, which is an important component in producing phenol acetone which is then used to make resins and adhesives.

With a flash point of -11.63 °C, Benzene is also highly flammable.

Symptoms Of Benzene Exposure

If benzene vapours are inhaled or ingested, signs of a health hazard may be apparent within minutes or several hours.

Signs of benzene exposure include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting
  • Convulsions

Chronic health effects may include:

  • Anemia
  • Immune system issues
  • Fertility problems
  • Leukemia


Methanol is a flammable chemical also referred to as “wood alcohol”. It got its name “wood alcohol” because most of it used to be produced from destructively distilling wood.

Today, most methanol is produced from a catalytic process involving carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Preventing Class 3 Flammable Liquids from spilling (1)

Methanol is regarded as a highly flammable chemical due to its flash point of 11-12 °C.

The primary use of methanol is as a base product for manufacturing chemicals. These chemicals are then used to produce a range of products including plastics, paints and explosives. Methanol can also be utilised as a fuel for some performance vehicles. Many laboratories around Australia and the world use methanol as a solvent.

Methanol is also a highly flammable chemical with a flash point between 11 and 12 °C. While this flash point range is considered less flammable than our previous examples, you should keep in mind that many workplaces regularly face temperatures within this range. That means that methanol can ignite in the presence of an ignition source, in any environment with a temperature range starting at 11 – 12 °C.

Symptoms Of Methanol Poisoning

The concerning health effects from methanol poisoning may not be noticed until after an asymptomatic period (1 to 72 hrs).

Signs may include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Reduced consciousness
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blindness
  • Heart and respiratory failure


Mainly used for industrial purposes, cyclohexane is a flammable chemical which is used to produce adipic acid and caprolactam — the two products used to produce nylon.

Cyclohexane is a colourless liquid with a distinct scent. In fact, the strong smell in household detergents comes from cyclohexane. Scanning calorimetry instruments use cyclohexane for calibration.

Lab worker using chemical in test tube

Lab staff must handle and store highly flammable chemicals in a way that reduces the risk of ignition and human harm.

Cyclohexane is a chemical that is commonly utilised in lab processes. This substance can be found in lab equipment.

It is also a very flammable liquid with a flash point of -20 °C, so there must be strict procedures in place to ensure the handling and storage practices minimise ignition risk.

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Health Issues Associated with Cyclohexane

As with any chemical, cyclohexane exposure can be fatal. Acute symptoms can appear quickly and include dizziness and drowsiness.

What are some of the symptoms of cyclohexane exposure?

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Drowsiness
  • Motor changes
  • Limb weakness
  • Verbal memory impairment
  • Risk of fatality
  • Ethanol

Also known as alcohol, ethyl alcohol or drinking alcohol, ethanol is a highly flammable liquid. Most alcoholic beverages contain a percentage of ethanol.

It is a volatile and colourless substance with a distinct odour. Its flash point depends on the concentration of ethanol. An extreme example would be pure ethanol which burns at 16.60 °C.

Ethanol is often used as an antiseptic in hospitals, clinics and homes. As it can effectively kill bacteria and fungi, it is found in medical wipes and sanitisers. Other uses for ethanol include it being used as engine fuel or a fuel additive.

IMPORTANT: Did you know that flammable vapours emitted from substances such as ethanol can quickly travel throughout the workplace? Fire, flashback and explosions can occur if these vapours are not minimised and contained.

Signs of Over-Exposure To Ethanol

While ethanol is found in  everyday household products, the risk of ethanol exposure is a potential hazard for labs.

Signs of ethanol exposure can include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • Slow responses
  • Long pauses between breaths
  • Low body temperature
  • Bluish or pale skin


Pentane is an acyclic saturated hydrocarbon that falls into the alkane group. Each pentane molecule contains five carbon atoms, and it exists as three different structural isomers. Pentane is a clear liquid with a mild gasoline-like odour. It is commonly used as a fuel or solvent. This chemical can also be found in plastics and in low-temperature thermometers.

As pentane is relatively inexpensive and evaporate quickly, pentanes are used as solvents. Pentanes can also be used to carry out a process called “liquid chromatography” — which is a laboratory technique for separating mixtures.  

Pentane is a very flammable chemical with a flash point of -49 °C.

Adverse Health Effects Associated With Pentane

Pentane is a hazardous substance that can cause adverse health effects. Exposure to pentane can occur if it is inhaled, ingested or comes into contact with the eyes or body.

Symptoms of pentane exposure may include:

  • Eye and skin irritation
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Passing out
  • Chronic health symptoms include:

Damage to the nervous system

  • Blisters and skin problems
  • Pulmonary edema

How to Reduce Risks Associated with Flammable Vapours

As we’ve detailed in this post, exposure to these highly flammable vapours can cause a range of acute and chronic health symptoms — including the risk of fatality. To reduce exposure, it’s crucial that stringent handling and storage practices are implemented in the laboratory. And a key safety measure is the storage of flammable chemicals in compliant flammable cabinets. As per the requirements of Safety in Laboratories (AS 2243), the cabinet must provide protection against spills, incompatible substances and impact damage. It must also be engineered and constructed to allow staff time to evacuate the building or action firefighting equipment, in the event of a fire.

However, in a laboratory situation, it’s important that cabinet ventilation is also considered. Ventilating a flammable cabinet prevents dangerous gases from building up within the cabinet. If a cabinet is not ventilated, gases may build up and be released on the unsuspecting laboratory technician when they open the storage cabinet.

To learn more about the benefits of ventilated dangerous goods storage cabinets, simply click on the below image to access our free eBook today.

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