Tales from the Lab: Investing in Lab Safety with Specially Designed Refrigerators and Freezers

In our ongoing quest to make labs safer, there is a culprit that is found in some labs that has no business being used for anything. We’re referring to a standard refrigerator.

A typical refrigerator, while great for storing snacks, lunch and soda, is not designed to withstand lab storage needs. There are numerous documented cases of lab safety accidents that have occurred when flammable materials with a flash point below 100°F are stored in a common refrigerator. Often, in these incidents, vapors escape, a spark ignites them, high pressure builds quickly and dramatically, and an explosion occurs, causing up to thousands of dollars in damage and the potential for human injury or even death.

Typical Lab Safety Refrigerator and Freezer Accidents

A few examples will suffice to make our point. In the first, tubes of petroleum ether were stored in a household freezer. The tubes were not well sealed and enough petroleum ether evaporated to surpass the low explosive limit of about 1.0%. When an internal component let off a spark, causing the freezer to detonate, damage to the lab and equipment was well over $250,000.

In the second example, a university research lab explosion was caused when vapors escaping a container of flammable liquid found an ignition source inside of a household refrigerator. The fridge latch failed, the door blew across the room, windows were broken, and the contents of the refrigerator were scattered across the room, presumably causing damage to several ongoing projects.

In each case, no humans were hurt because no one was in the room at the time of the lab safety accident. This was fortunate, but certainly cannot be guaranteed.

The Hidden Danger of Common Refrigerators and Freezers

Standard household-rated refrigerators and freezers are never acceptable storage options for flammable materials. This goes without saying, but simply labeling household appliances as unfit for flammable storage has also not proven to be sufficient either.

Refrigerators and freezers can operate for 20 to 30 years, often being moved from one lab and lab supervisor to another. Promises made by the purchaser not to use the item for flammable storage can be forgotten, or lab techs in a hurry can decide to store those materials in the closest appliance “for just one night”—with potentially costly consequences. It’s, therefore, much smarter to avoid standard refrigerator and freezer use for any purpose (even snacks and lunch) in a laboratory.

The Importance of Investing in Dedicated Refrigerators and Freezers

Fortunately for lab safety, there are flammable-materials-storage refrigerators and freezers designed specifically for labs. With these appliances, all potential ignition sources for flammable vapors are located outside the cooling portion of the unit. These units are prominently labeled as being safe for flammable storage. (There are also explosion-proof refrigerators and freezers that isolate ignition sources from both outside and inside the unit. They are designed for labs where flammable gases or vapors are present in the labs themselves for extended periods of time.)

The Importance of Investing in Dedicated Lab Furniture

Certainly, investing in lab safety is a high priority for everyone. Dedicated cold storage is only one way to insure it. Dedicated lab furniture like the IonBench MS, which safely supports and transports heavy equipment and isolates vacuum pump noise below acceptable levels is another. Our IonBench LC also safely raises and lowers instruments for safe and easy access. To learn more about the lab safety features of our dedicated lab furniture, contact Tim Hawkins via email or at 1-888-669-1233.