Understanding the true risks of using flammable liquids in the workplace

Jul 11, 2019 Posted by Walter Ingles

Flammable liquids are volatile substances and require careful and comprehensive strategies to ensure they are used, stored and handled safely. We’ve created this blog to help you understand (and evaluate) the true level of risk that flammable liquids (and other Dangerous Goods) are creating at your workplace.

Risk vs Hazard

Let’s get started by being clear about what we mean by the term ‘level of risk’. The words ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’ are often interchanged, but they are actually two different things. A hazard is a danger, and a chemical hazard refers to the dangerous properties of a chemical that causes the substance to be flammable, corrosive, reactive, explosive etc. 


But just because a chemical is flammable or explosive doesn’t mean that it will actually catch fire or explode in your workplace. So the term ‘risk’ refers to the exposure to danger or the potential for the hazard to create a dangerous incident, injury or illness.


Example: The solvent toluene is used at many industrial, pharmaceutical and manufacturing workplaces. Toluene is highly flammable and easily ignited when exposed to heat, sparks and flames. It can float on water, and run off into drains and sewers causing explosions. The flammable vapours can be harmful to human health if inhaled, while ingesting or swallowing toluene can create narcotic effects as well as coma or death. 

These are all hazards, and some of the potential dangers associated with toluene — but these hazards don’t represent the actual level of risk to your business. If  you don’t use toluene outdoors, and the chemical is always stored and handled over a spill bund, the risk of the chemical escaping into a drain and exploding is low. 

Level of Risk

It’s important to identify (and then allocate resources) to the hazards that create the most risk.

And in order to understand the full level of risk caused by Class 3 Flammable Liquids and other hazardous chemicals you need to look at four different areas:

  1. Hazard
  2. Potential Risk
  3. Use/quantities/location in workplace
  4. Actual Risk

To make it easier, we’ve created this table to illustrate the process.


Potential Risk 

Use/location in workplace

Actual Risk

Highly Flammable.

Will ignite when exposed to heat, sparks, and flames. Distant ignition and flashbacks are possible.

Used to regulate paint consistency. Vapours are released when containers are opened and chemical transferred to the paint tin. Difficult to assess the amount of ignition sources in high traffic handling area.

High risk.

Workers handle toluene on a daily basis.


Run off to sewers and drains can cause explosions.

Toluene is only used indoors in small quantities. When not in use the chemical is stored in a compliant safety cabinet with spill containment.

Low risk. 

It’s unlikely the chemical would escape into a drain.

Harmful if swallowed

Damage to throat, coma, death.

The chemical is kept in the original containers which are well-marked and never dispensed into portable containers. Toluene has a distinct odour and workers are highly trained.

Low risk. 

Unlikely someone would drink toluene. 


REMEMBER: The above table is a fictional representation of chemical usage to help you understand a process. Always conduct your own risk assessment based on the quantities, concentrations and actual use of chemicals at your own job site.

Factors that increase chemical risks

When assessing the risks associated with flammable liquids (and other chemicals) you also need to consider the following critical factors:

  • Chemical quantities - in very simple terms, 1,000 litres of petrol creates a much higher risk than 1 litre of petrol.
  • Mixtures and handling - purchasing premixed liquids and fuels reduces handling times.
  • Indoor vs outdoor use - outdoor environments can naturally dissipate flammable vapours, while indoor chemical storage can offer better spillage and environmental protection. 
  • Handling and processing times - the more often a fuel container is opened and used, the more vapours are released into the air. 
  • Incompatible substances - flammable liquids become more volatile and dangerous in the presence of oxidisers. This could come even come from the medical grade O2 at your first aid station.
  • Heavy traffic zone - it’s harder to control potential ignition sources in work areas that have a lot of personnel coming and going.

The chemicals that create the highest level of risk are capable of creating extremely dangerous incidents that could cause death or extensive property damage. And, they are kept in high quantities (or used extensively) so the likelihood of these dangerous events occurring is very high.

Minimising chemical risk through proper storage

One of the most efficient and reliable methods of minimising chemical risk is by implementing proper storage practices. Transferring even small containers of flammable liquids to a dedicated Class 3 safety cabinet or outdoor store is a hazard control measure that has an immediate impact.

Indoor flammable liquids cabinets

Outdoor flammable liquids stores

  • Maximise natural ventilation
  • Isolate flammable liquids from work zones and production areas
  • Provide environmental spill protection
  • Secure chemicals from unauthorised workers, vandals and thieves

Next steps

Do you carry Class 3 Flammable Liquids and want to reduce the level of risk to your business? We invite you now to download our free eBook  Essential Considerations When Storing Flammable Liquids Indoors. We walk you through the risk management process and give you the tools you need to select, install and maintain an indoor flammable liquids cabinet. Download and read it now by clicking on the image below:

Essential Considerations when Storing Flammable Liquids Indoors download Free eBook

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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