From gloves and aprons to eye and respiratory protection, workers take many precautions when handling hazardous materials. But did you know that storing chemicals can be just as dangerous as working with them?

In this article, I’ll help you get familiar with the potential hazards and offer some tips for protecting your workers and workspaces – all while keeping your chemicals safely stored away.

Understanding the Hazards

Hazardous chemicals pose a number of risks. In fact, there’s no single list that identifies all of them, since they are extensive and consistently changing.

So, how do you know what is classified as a hazardous chemical? To be safe, you should consider any substance that has a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) a hazardous material.

You must take appropriate precautions when storing these chemicals. Failing to comply with safety practices, protocols, and regulations could result in serious injury, or worse. Some of the key hazards that accompany stored chemicals include:

  • Contamination
  • Fires
  • Explosions
  • Spills
  • Toxic exposures
  • Chemical reactions

What You Should Know Before Storing Chemicals

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the best way to store hazardous chemicals. To determine the safest storage methods, you’ll need to consider the physical and chemical properties of the substance, as well as the health risks it poses.

Despite that, here are seven key things you should know if you will be storing any hazardous materials.

1. Some Substances Are Incompatible

Even though substances are stored separately, you must consider the possibility that they could interact if there was a leak or spill. Understanding the properties of the chemicals you’re storing is the only way you can determine potentially incompatible substances.

Examples of substances that should never be stored together include:

  • Acids that react with hypoclorites (which produce chlorine gas)
  • Acids that react with cyanides (which generate hydrogen cyanide gas)
  • Acids that react with alkalis (which generate heat)
  • Nitric acid and organic materials like alcohol (which react explosively)
  • Oxidizing agents and organic materials

If you’re unsure about compatibility, check the Safety Data Sheet. If one isn’t available, contact your supplier immediately to request one.

2. The Type of Storage System You Choose Matters

Ideally, hazardous chemical containers should be stored at a convenient height for handling. High shelving increases the risk of drops or spills.

You’ll also need to choose appropriate shelving for the volume of chemicals being stored. The last thing you want is the complete collapse of your storage shelves because they weren’t sturdy enough to hold the weight of the containers.

3. Storage Containers Must Be Clearly Labeled

No matter what you’re storing or the type of storage system you’re using, safety signage is crucial. Every chemical should be properly (and clearly) labeled so it can be easily identified. This is especially important in an emergency, when time is of the essence. Storage areas should also be appropriately labeled to communicate that hazardous chemicals are inside.

4. Not Everyone Needs Access to the Storage Area

Let’s repeat that: not every employee needs access to the chemical storage area.

Greater access means a greater risk of an incident taking place, so it’s best to keep storage areas locked and restrict access only to those who require it to carry out their job functions.

5. Flammable Materials Require Additional Care

When storing chemicals that are both hazardous and flammable, it’s incredibly important that you minimize the risk of a fire, explosion, or spill. These chemicals should be stores in closed containers and kept separate from sources of ignition and other dangerous substances.

The storage area for flammable chemicals should be well ventilated to ensure that vapors from any leaks or spills are rapidly dispersed. It should also be fire resistant and constructed from non-combustible materials.

6. You Must Have a Containment System

Containment systems play an important role in hazardous chemical storage: they contain any leaks or spills to prevent damage or injury.

OSHA requires the containment system to have the capacity to contain 10 percent of the total volume of the containers or the volume of the largest container (whichever is greater). And of course, they must be made of compatible material to prevent chemical reactions during containment procedures.

7. The Code You Need to Follow Might Depend on How Much You Store

The International Building Code (IBC) specifies a maximum allowable quantity (MAQ) for flammable and combustible liquids.

The MAQ depends on the class of the stored materials:

  • Class II Combustible Liquid: 120 Gallons
  • Class IIIA Combustible Liquid: 330 Gallons
  • Class IIIB Combustible Liquid: 13,200 Gallons
  • Class IA Flammable Liquid: 30 Gallons
  • Class IB or IC Flammable Liquid: 120 Gallons
  • Combination Flammable Liquid: 120 Gallons

Quantities that fall below the MAQ can be stored in facilities that meet S-occupancy requirements.

If quantities exceed the MAQ, however, the hazardous materials pose a very severe fire risk. They must, therefore, be stored in a building that meets H-occupancy requirements, which provides better fire protection.

Assessments and Employee Training

Storing hazardous materials isn't just about the cabinet or the containers. A proper risk assessment and adequate employee training are also integral parts to keeping your workplace safe. Risk assessments help you and your employees identify hazardous materials and understand the risks surrounding them. Proper training ensures that workers take the time to store, move, and handle the substances in a safe fashion.

Employees should be able to conduct visual inspections and identify early warning signs of potential issues. Damaged racks and missing labels should be remedied immediately and any sign of damage to chemical containers must be reported to avoid leaks.

Conclusion

Storing hazardous chemicals is inherently risky, but those risks can be managed with some simple precautions. Commit yourself to fully understanding what materials you’re storing, why you’re storing them, where they will be kept, and under what conditions.

If you take hazardous chemical storage seriously, your workers will, too.