Paper Towel Used for Wiping Down Bench with Ethanol Catches Fire

What Happened?

A researcher was preparing his bench for sterile work by wiping it down with 70% ethanol and a paper towel. He was alone in the lab at the time. The ethanol soaked paper towel was not thrown away as usual practice but was placed on the desk adjacent to the lab bench with the Bunsen burner. When the researcher lit the Bunsen burner, the paper towel caught fire. The researcher moved the towel to the lab bench with his hand and smothered the small fire with an empty pyrex beaker and water. Extinguishing the fire generated enough smoke to set off the fire alarm. The researcher cleaned up the area and evacuated the lab to join other lab members at their designated meeting point outside. He then looked for fire responders to let them know that the fire had been extinguished. At the time of the incident, the researcher was not wearing a flame resistant lab coat, but a regular white lab coat. Fortunately, no one was hurt in this incident.

What Was The Cause?

The ethanol soaked paper towel left near the burner caught fire.

What Corrective Actions Were Taken?

• Generate an SOP for the use of the Bunsen burner including potential risks and emergency procedures
• Use flame resistant lab coats when handling flammables and Bunsen burner
• Perform a fire drill with emergency procedures including immediate lab evacuation

How Can Incidents Like This Be Prevented?

• Keep all flammables including flammable liquids and any type of paper away from the Bunsen burner; survey the bench environment for potential flammable material before lighting the Bunsen burner.
• After wiping down the bench with 70% ethanol, make sure all ethanol has evaporated before lighting the Bunsen burner.
• After wiping down the bench with 70% ethanol, also make sure all ethanol has evaporated from your gloves or don new gloves.
• Turn off the Bunsen burner once you finish your experiment.

Resources

> Fire Safety in the Lab
> Fire Extinguisher Hands-On Training - UCLA

 Posted: December 1, 2013

QUICK ACTION TIPS 

If something accidentally catches fire

1. Douse the flames immediately by covering with a dry cloth

2. DO NOT blow out or soak in water

3. Know location and usage of fire extinguisher, fire blanket, safety shower

4. Evacuate if fire cannot be controlled and call 911

5. Report the incident to your PI