Ethanol Fire Burns Researcher

July 31, 2011

What Happened?

A researcher was plating bacteria onto a petri dish using ethanol and a Bunsen burner as part of a standard sterile transfer on a lab bench. The metal spreader was dipped in a jar of ethanol and burned off in the burner. Somehow, the jar of ethanol spilled on the lab bench and onto the researcher's bare arms and t-shirt, and caught fire. The flames were reported to be up to two feet high. The researcher immediately went to the safety shower, pulled the handle which activated the emergency shower and got in. The shower water quickly put out the fire and cooled the burns.

Other combustible papers on the bench and trashcan caught fire. A colleague used a nearby fire extinguisher to put out the fire.

911 was called -- the fire department responded and transported the researcher to the hospital for medical attention. At the hospital, first and second degree burns were treated and he was released.

What Caused the Incident?

The researcher indicates that the jar containing ethanol was very full and was being used too close to the burner. He is unsure if the vapors first caught fire or if there was a spill that caught fire.

What Corrective Action Was Taken?

Lab members and the Principal Investigator discussed the accident at their weekly lab meeting. Consensus was that the ethanol container was placed too close to the flame. Caution should always be taken not to place the warm spreader near the ethanol container at any time. They also reviewed how to turn the emergency shower on and off. The researcher has decided to change the way he spreads the bacteria and is presently using glass beads and disposable sterile equipment.

How Can Incidents Like This Be Prevented?

Ethanol fires are occasionally reported from the plating processes but usually with only minor damage. What made this especially serious was the size of the fire from the spilled ethanol. Remember to:

  • Separate the alcohol container at least 12 inches from the Bunsen burner flame.
  • Let the spreader cool down before putting it in the alcohol. Hold the spreader with ethanol away from the Bunsen burner.
  • Cap the container of alcohol in between use and be careful not to knock over or spill the container of alcohol. Use only the minimum amount of alcohol that you need, and use a container with a low center of gravity.
  • Some labs do not use ethanol and open flames for their sterile plating process. Consider ways of changing your procedure to make it safer, such as using glass beads and disposable sterile equipment.

Other Lessons Learned

  • The immediate response by the researcher to use the nearby safety shower prevented more serious injuries or burns. Prompt assistance from other lab members also helped.
  • The safety shower was kept clear of materials and was easy to get to.
  • The fire extinguisher was mounted near the emergency shower, was easy for others in lab to find and use to put out the trash can fire.
  • A reminder that researchers are required to wear a lab coat when working with hazardous and biological materials. A lab coat would have likely prevented most or all of the skin damage given the rapid use of a safety shower. Some lab coats have tear away buttons and, if possible, the coat could have been removed en-route to the shower. Flame retardant lab coats are also available. Most disposable lab coats are combustible and should not be worn when working with open flames or flammables.
  • If a safety shower is not nearby, fire on clothing can be put out by using the "Stop, Drop & Roll" technique to smother the fire. Once the flames are out, use the closest safety shower to cool any burns. Running to a shower with your clothing on fire can fan the flames, so it is important to get the fire out quickly.
  • Before working with flammables, review your work site and what you would do in an emergency. An emergency shower and eyewash must be available within 10 seconds of where corrosive or hazardous materials are used.
  • Facilities Services (formerly PP-CS) regularly checks that the campus safety showers are working properly. Check the certification tag on your shower and verify that it has been tested.
  • Lab personnel knew how to activate the shower, but some were unsure how to turn OFF the shower which can lead to excess water damage. When activated, the emergency shower will stay ON, until turned OFF. Generally, you pull to activate and then shove back up to close the water valve. There is generally no floor drain for safety showers so Facilities Services should be contacted to wet-vacuum up the water off the floor.


Demonstration of Safety Eyewashes in the Laboratory

For information on obtaining a lab coat see the LHAT instructions on our PPE Page.

lab bench with burned ice bucket and burned chair

Lab bench with burned ice bucket and burned chair

Plating bacteria on lab bench with ethanol bottle, metal spreader, and Bunsen burner

Planting bacteria on lab bench with ethanol bottle, metal spreader, and Bunsen burner