How to Store and Handle Chemicals in Laboratories: A Complete Guide - Part One

Jul 1, 2021 Posted by Walter Ingles

Like many Australian workplaces, a laboratory environment involves the use and storage of chemicals, including dangerous goods of various classes.

However, the compact nature of most laboratory environments, and the proximity of hazardous chemicals to the people handling them, necessitate a specially developed set of guidelines for the storage of chemicals within laboratories and their supporting storage facilities.

This series of articles provides a complete guide to the safe handling and storage of chemicals in Australian laboratories and stores associated with those laboratories.

Part One examines the chemicals used in laboratories and how to identify them and the hazards they present, while Part Two provides guidance on how to manage the risks associated with storing and handling these chemicals.


Flammable liquids such as methanol are commonly used in labs for a variety of purposes

Chemicals Used in Laboratories

Chemicals commonly used in laboratories include a range of hazardous substances, as defined by Safe Work Australia, as well as a variety of dangerous goods including flammable and combustible liquids, many of which are classified under the current ADG Code.

Laboratories also commonly use a range of chemicals that may not be classified as hazardous substances or dangerous goods, but can present compatibility problems when stored incorrectly.

Flammable Liquids Used in Laboratories

Some of the most prevalent chemicals found in Australian laboratories are those designated as Class 3 - Flammable Liquids.

These highly flammable liquids are used for a variety of purposes. Some common examples include:

  • Acetone - (CH3)2CO - also called propanone, used in laboratories as a polar, aprotic solvent in a variety of organic reactions, as well as to precipitate proteins, and as a fluorescent tracer in fluid flow experiments.
  • Benzene - C6H6 - classed as a hydrocarbon, this common industrial chemical is used primarily as an intermediate to make other chemicals, including acetone and ethylbenzene, which is used to make polymers and plastics
  • Cyclohexane - C6H12 - another common industrial chemical mainly used in nylon production; commonly used in laboratories as a recrystallisation solvent, and for calibration of differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) instruments.
  • Ethanol - C2H6O - also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, or simply alcohol when referring to alcoholic beverages; used in labs as a chemical solvent, in the synthesis of organic compounds, and (with dry ice or other coolants) as a cooling bath due to its low freezing point
  • Methanol - CH3OH - also called methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, used industrially as a base product for manufacturing chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is used in the production of plastics, paints and explosives; used in laboratories mainly as a solvent
  • Pentane - C5H12 - the most volatile of the liquid alkanes at room temperature, pentane is relatively cheap and evaporates rapidly, so is often used in laboratories as a specialty solvent; also used in liquid chromatography

Gases Used in Laboratories

Class 2 - Gases are used in Australian labs for a variety of purposes such as gas chromatography. The risks associated with the storage and handling of gas, generally involving gas cylinders, are manifold and must be managed properly to avoid damage to people and property.

Gases used in laboratories include:

  • Gas chromatography (GC) carrier gases - such as helium, nitrogen and hydrogen
  • Atomic absorption (AA) gases - such as nitrous oxide (NO2) and acetylene (C2H2)
  • Flame ionisation detection (FID) gases - such as hydrogen or hydrogen mixtures, other fuel gases, and even ai
  • Supercritical and coolant gases - such as liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Inductively coupled plasma (ICP) gases - such as argon, both compressed and in liquid form
  • Electron-capture detection and nuclear counter mixtures - including methane-argon mixtures


Nitrogen is used in laboratories as a carrier gas for gas chromatography

Flammable Solids Used in Laboratories

Class 4 - Flammable Solids such as carbon, sulphur and phosphorus are prone to spontaneous combustion. Flammable solids classified as Dangerous When Wet, such as alkali metals, activated carbon, and aluminium phosphide, can emit flammable gases when they come into contact with water, and must be stored appropriately with adequate ventilation

Class 4 - Flammable solids used in labs are divided into three subdivisions and include:

  • Class 4.1 - Flammable Solids, such as nitrocellulose used in membrane filters and diagnostics; and magnesium, used in organic synthesis
  • Class 4.2 - Spontaneously Combustible Solids, such as aluminium alkyls used in chemical synthesis; and pyrophoric substance
  • Class 4.3 - Dangerous When Wet, solid substances that emit a flammable gas when wet or react violently with water, such as sodium, calcium, potassium and calcium carbide (CaC2

Oxidising Substances and Organic Peroxides Used in Laboratories

Class 5 - Oxidising Substances and Organic Peroxides differ in that the former are non-combustible while the latter may combust independently.

Oxidising substances and organic peroxides used in labs include:

  • Class 5.1 - Oxidising Agents such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), halogens, potassium nitrate (KNO3), and nitric acid (HNO3)
  • Class 5.2 - Organic Peroxides such as methyl ethyl ketone peroxide (MEKP) (C8H18O6)


Oxidising agents such as hydrogen peroxide must be stored in secure, compliant cabinets

Toxic Substances Used in Laboratories

Dangerous goods used in labs can be either toxic or non-toxic, as well as exhibiting other hazards associated with other Dangerous Goods classifications.

A powerful oxidiser such as hydrogen peroxide, for example, is also corrosive and toxic, but has a greater oxidising ability than corrosion ability or toxicity and is therefore given a Class 5.1 Dangerous Goods classification (hydrogen peroxide also has a subsidiary hazard classification of Class 8 to cover its significant corrosive ability).

Class 6.1 - Toxic Substances used in laboratories include:

  • Methylene chloride - CH2Cl2 - (also called dichloromethane); isopropyl alcohol (C3H8O); and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)

Corrosive Substances Used in Laboratories

Class 8 - Corrosive Substances used in labs include acids and bases.

Acids Used in Labs
  • Sulfuric acid (H2SO4), hydrochloric acid (HCl), nitric acid (HNO3), citric acid (C6H8O7
Bases Used in Labs
  • Sodium hydroxide (NaOH), calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2), sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), aluminium hydroxide (Al(OH)3)

Miscellaneous Dangerous Goods Used in Laboratories

Class 9 - Miscellaneous Dangerous Goods used in laboratories include:

  • Solid carbon dioxide (CO2), or dry ice
  • Acetaldehyde ammonia - C6H15N3
  • Zinc dithionite, or zinc hydrosulphite - O4S2Zn

How to Identify Hazards and Manage Risks in the Laboratory

There’s a myriad of ways to injure yourself or damage equipment in a laboratory environment, and the presence of potentially dangerous chemicals is one of the major hazards lab workers face on a daily basis.

Identifying and managing the risks to health and safety associated with using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals at a workplace - such as a laboratory - are an intrinsic part of your duties under the current model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations.

Ensure Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) are Accessible

The model Code of Practice: Managing risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace provides practical guidance on how to manage health and safety risks.

If hazardous chemicals are not stored and handled in ways that comply with these codes and regulations, damage to people and property are more likely to occur, potentially ruining businesses, careers and people’s lives.

One of the first steps the code stipulates for managing chemicals in the workplace is to ensure all the hazardous chemicals stored on the premises each has a readily accessible, relevant Safety Data Sheet (SDS) that anyone can refer to for critical information about the hazardous chemical.

The SDS includes information on:

  • The chemical's identity and ingredients
  • Health and physical hazards
  • Safe handling and storage procedures
  • Emergency procedures
  • Disposal considerations


Safety Data Sheets (SDS) should be kept in purpose-built SDS storage holders

Conduct a Risk Assessmen

Although not mandatory under WHS Regulations, a risk assessment is the most effective way to identify the hazards and control risks in the laboratory from dangerous chemicals.

An professional onsite risk assessment will help you:

  1. Identify which laboratory workers are at risk of exposure
  2. Determine what sources and processes are causing that risk
  3. Identify if and what kind of control measures should be implemented
  4. Check the effectiveness of existing control measures

Assess Health Hazards and Physical Hazard

Hazardous chemicals used in laboratories can present risks to human health due to their toxicological properties - health hazards - as well as risks to physical safety and property due to their physical hazards.

Some chemicals, including solvents such as benzene, xylene and toluene, present both health and physical hazards.

How to Identify Fire and Explosion Hazards

The storage and use of flammable substances such as ethanol come with an increased risk of fire and explosion. The first step towards managing the risks associated with flammable chemicals in the laboratory is to identify the hazards these subtances present.

There are three key elements associated with fire and explosions in the laboratory - generally referred to as the fire triangle

Fire and explosions happen when the three elements of the fire triangle intersect, namely:

  1. A fuel source - a flammable or combustible substance such as ethanol
  2. An oxygen source - such as air
  3. An ignition source - an energy source able to cause ignition, such as static electricity, a pilot light, or even a light bulb


The Fire Triangle helps you identify fire and explosion hazards - Source: SWA Guidance material

How to Identify Fuel Sources in the Laboratory

Fuels commonly found in labs that contribute to the risk of fire and explosion include:

  • Flammable chemicals such as flammable solids, liquids or gases, especially their fumes or vapours
  • Dangerous When Wet substances that emit flammable gas when they come into contact with water
  • Liquids and gases that ignite spontaneously in contact with air, such as pyrophoric solids
  • Non-hazardous substances such as wood, paper and other combustible materials
  • Sources of oxygen, including air, compressed air and oxygen in gas cylinders, chemical peroxides and oxidisers
  • Contained spaces subject to increases in pressure during chemical reactions and other processes that emit gases, even if the gas itself doesn’t ignite

How to Identify Ignition Sources in the Laboratory

Sources of energy that can ignite fuel in a laboratory can be put into three broad categories, as illustrated in the following table.

Examples of Ignition Sources in Laboratories

Type of Ignition Source Example Ignition Source
  • Open gas flame (such as a Bunsen burner)
  • Pilot light
  • Electrical equipment, including mobile devices, fans and exhaust systems, portable radios, power points and switches (excluding equipment classified as intrinsically safe)
  • Static electricity, including that produced by friction on clothes or skin
  • Friction from grinding or drilling tools, or scraping of metallic substances on materials such as concrete or stone
  • Hot surfaces, including ovens, light bulbs, heaters, flue pipes, pumps, and generators
  • Exothermic chemical reactions (chemical reactions that generate heat)

Additional Factors Affecting Fire and Explosion Risks

The risk of fire and explosion is also influenced by a material’s physical and chemical characteristics.

The following table outlines the various physical and chemical characteristics of a material and the risks of fire or explosion associated with those factors

Factor Associated Risks of Fire and Explosion
Form or physical state, i.e., is the material a solid, liquid or gas? Such as:
  • Aerosols, vapours, fumes, mists
  • Powders, dust, fibres
  • Liquids spread more easily than solids and are more at risk of coming into contact with an ignition source if spilled
  • The vapour density of gases affects their flow across surfaces and their rate of dissipation - vapours denser than air can flow like liquids and come into contact with a potential ignition source
Temperature and pressure
  • Higher temperatures usually decrease the lower explosive limit of a combustible chemical - making it more likely to ignite at lower concentrations in air
  • Heating combustible materials can also increase vapour pressure - including the concentration of emitted vapours - and increase potential for ignition
  • Increasing atmospheric pressure can also increase the material’s temperature - potentially leading to instability and uncontrolled reactions or decomposition
  • When contained and under pressure, chemicals will also be released more rapidly if there is a loss of containment
Confinement, such as:
  • A crucible, beaker, flask, cylinder, tank, duct, tubing or pipework
  • Room, cupboard or building
  • When a fuel air mixture is contained, an explosion can be considerably greater than if unconfined - possibly leading to flying debris that can present a hazard to both people and property
Presence of chemical oxidisers
  • Chemical oxidisers can react violently with various other chemicals, including:
    • Organic material such as paper, wood, cellulose products
    • Hydrocarbon solvents such as mineral turpentine
    • Organic carbon-based chemicals such as ethanol
  • Given oxidisers provide oxygen via a chemical reaction, the risk of fire or explosion exists even if the materials are handled under an inert atmosphere such as nitrogen
Chemical reactions
  • Heat from exothermic reactions can act as an ignition source
  • Pressure build up in enclosed containers or flasks can cause containers to rupture or explode
Combustible dust or fibre accumulation
  • When accumulations of finely divided organic compounds and metals are disturbed (by air movement, for example) and released into the air, they can come into contact with an ignition source such as a flame from a Bunsen burner or hot surface
  • Dust-air mixtures can be classified as hazardous atmospheres just like vapours from flammable liquids or gases

How to Identify Corrosive Chemical Hazards

Hazardous chemicals classified as Class 8 - Corrosive Substances - such as acids and bases used in laboratories, can damage surfaces and equipment, including metal containers, fixtures or fittings.

Corrosion can result in leaks developing in equipment or storage facilities and the consequent loss of containment of the corrosive material.

Corrosive substances can exist in liquid, gaseous or solid forms:

  • Corrosive liquids such as sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide can lead to splash injuries when they come into contact with skin or eyes
  • Corrosive gases such as chlorine and ammonia can lead to serious inhalation injuries
  • Corrosive solids such as sodium hydroxide and phenol can produce dust hazards that can be extremely harmful if ingested or inhaled

How to Identify Compressed Gas Hazards

Compressed gases stored under pressure in cylinders present a range of hazards to people and property, including

  • Fire and explosion
  • Asphyxiation
  • Oxidation
  • Uncontrolled pressure release


Compressed gas storage cylinders can be easily knocked over if not stored properly

How to Identify Asphyxiation Hazards

Laboratory activities can present a multitude of asphyxiation hazards by either consuming the available oxygen or contaminating the atmosphere with high concentrations of other gases.

A critical lack of oxygen leading to asphyxiation inside a lab can occur when:

  • Oxygen is consumed by burning fuels or through oxidation processes
  • Other gases accumulate in the air, displacing the breathable oxygen
  • A chemical such as hydrogen cyanide is inhaled and binds to a person’s blood haemoglobin, inhibiting their body’s ability to use the oxygen

Any gas in high enough concentrations, including fuels such as hydrogen and acetylene, or inert gases such as argon, helium and nitrogen, is an asphyxiation hazard.

Compressed and liquified gases can cause oxygen levels to fall dangerously low by leaking out of a workspace and accumulating into low-lying pockets (if the gas is heavier than air) or high spaces (if the gas is lighter than air), presenting asphyxiation hazards to anyone in those areas

Next Steps

Part Two of How to Store and Handle Chemicals in Laboratories: A Complete Guide will guide you through the process of controlling the risks associated with hazardous chemicals in laboratories, including how to implement and maintain the hierarchy of control measures (covering engineering and administrative controls).

Dangerous goods storage specialists STOREMASTA have also developed an eBook explaining how to use the Hierarchy of Controls to control the risks associated with hazardous chemicals such as those used in labs. This free eBook helps you select the most effective risk control measures and implement all the required mandatory controls according to current legislation.



Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Storage Specialist. He helps organisations reduce risk and improve efficiencies in the storage and management of dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals.

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