Hazardous chemicals can’t be stored or handled any which way. The risks of fire, explosion, or toxic exposure are as great in the storage area as in the work area. In fact, storage areas usually contain more substances, and more diverse ones, than the work area—creating even greater risks of leaks and incompatibles. That diversity also makes ignorance or carelessness in handling the chemicals extremely dangerous.
No chemical, no matter how small the quantity can be taken lightly. It’s a good idea to restrict storage area access to people who understand the hazards and take proper precautions. Everyone who does have access to the storage room—including receiving personnel—must know how to find and use the safety information on labels and safety data sheets (SDS/MSDS). They should also be aware of some commonsense guidelines of safe chemical storage.
One of the biggest risks in chemical storage is haphazard arrangement of incompatible chemicals—chemicals that can react together to create toxic smoke, gas, heat, mists, fire, or explosion. Luckily, you don’t have to be a chemist to know which chemicals to keep away from each other. Their SDSs will tell you that. But every employee with access to the storage area must recognize the risks of incompatibles and always check the SDS before storing a chemical to be sure no dangerous reactions are possible.
There are several types of chemicals that require particular caution:
- Organic oxidizers that come in contact with combustible materials can cause them to burn or increase their burning rate. Some can even explode when exposed to heat, shock, or friction. Therefore, storage areas must clearly identify and label oxidizers so as to indicate the type and degree of hazard.
- Inorganic oxidizers, which do not contain carbon, are even more common. While they don’t burn, they add oxygen to the fire and are particularly dangerous when brought together with organic materials. Therefore, they must be kept away from any material that could burn, as well as from other oxidizers. Large quantities of inorganic oxidizers may have to be stored in a separate room with specific fire-protection requirements.
- Acids, which may be oxidizers, can create toxic emissions or fires if they react with bases, active metals, flammable and combustible material, and with other chemicals. Acids in containers that have been transported may also have Department of Transportation “corrosive” warning labels.
- Bases, materials that are soluble in water and produce hydroxide ions in solution, have to be kept separate from acids.
- Flammable materials have to be kept away from oxidizers, oxidizing acids, and any source of ignition.