Factors Affecting Fire And Explosion Risks – Chemical Safety

Factors Affecting Fire And Explosion Risks 

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The following physical and chemical characteristics of materials can influence the level of risk of a fire or explosion occurs.

Form and physical state

The form or physical state of chemicals, substances or other materials can have a significant influence on the level of risk of a fire or explosion. The physical state of a material is generally considered as either solid, liquid or gas, however, materials can be further categorised as aerosolised droplets, vapours, fumes, mists, powders, dust or fibres.

Bulk materials in solid, liquid and gas forms behave differently and present different risks. Liquids spread readily compared to solids and have a greater risk of coming into contact with an ignition source if spilt. Gases present a greater risk as concentrations in air are generally higher than for liquids (and their vapours) and can spread more rapidly. Depending on the vapour density, some gases can flow across surfaces in a similar way to liquids, rather than dissipating quickly. For example, vapours which have a density greater than air can move along the floor and spread to adjacent work areas where ignition sources may be present, thereby creating a significant risk in those areas.

Temperature and pressure

Changes in temperature and pressure can affect the properties of a chemical.

The explosive range of a chemical (for instance, its lower and upper explosive limits) can change with temperature. At higher temperatures, the lower explosive limit is usually lower, meaning that the substance is more likely to ignite at lower concentrations in air. Heating solid or liquid combustible substances can also increase the vapour pressure (for instance, the concentration of vapours emitted) of the substance making it more likely to ignite.

Handling chemicals under pressure increase the risk in several ways. Any loss of containment will occur more rapidly than under normal atmospheric pressure so that more hazardous chemicals are released. Increasing pressure generally increases a temperature of the material, and some chemicals also become unstable at higher temperatures and pressures causing an uncontrolled decomposition or reaction.

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The effects of an explosion can be exacerbated where the fuel and air mixture is contained, for example in a tank, duct or pipework, as well as in larger structures like silos, rooms or buildings. Explosions can be more violent than when unconfined, and flying debris (such as from the container or building) can cause serious injuries or death.

Fire risks involving chemical oxidisers

Chemical oxidisers can react violently and unexpectedly with many chemicals such as organic material (for example, wood, paper, cellulose products), hydrocarbon solvents (for example, mineral turpentine, petrol, diesel) and other organic (carbon-based) chemicals (for example, ethanol, mineral oils).

You should assess any situation where an oxidiser could come into contact with these types of materials. This includes any containers and other equipment used in handling or transferring the chemicals. Oxidisers should be handled in compatible containers and with compatible equipment to avoid a dangerous reaction occurring.

It is important to note that, since oxidisers provide oxygen through the chemical reaction, rather than air being the oxygen source, a risk of fire or explosion can still exist even if these materials are handled under an inert atmosphere like nitrogen.

Fire risks from other chemical reactions

Fires and explosions can occur as a result of chemical reactions. Many chemical reactions are exothermic – that is they give off heat during the reaction. This heat can act as an ignition source igniting any fuels present, pressure can build up in enclosed systems (for example, containers, flasks, pressure vessels) causing the container to rupture or even explode.

You should assess any situation where incompatible chemicals could interact and cause a dangerous or uncontrolled violent reaction.

Dust explosion risks

Dust explosions present a significant risk in some workplaces, however, they are often overlooked. Dust explosions usually occur where combustible dust (or fibres, for example from paper, grain, finely divided organic compounds and metals) have accumulated and are then disturbed and released into the air, coming into contact with an ignition source. Common ways in which dust can be disturbed include from wind when opening doors or windows, during cleaning or sweeping up of waste or using compressed air to blow out material accumulated in crevices, gaps or in machinery.

Dust may also be generated transferring materials, such as filling the hold of a ship or a silo with a grain (liberating grain dust).

When the dust cloud comes into contact with an ignition source such as a flame, hot surface or spark, ignition can occur causing an explosion. Dust-air mixtures can be classified as hazardous atmospheres in the same way as other flammable materials like vapours from flammable liquids and gases.

Dust clouds can be generated by pressure from an explosion in another area, causing damage and propagation much greater than the original explosion.

Effect of particle size on dust explosion risk

The size of particles in dust can have a significant impact on the explosion risk. Smaller particles have a greater surface to mass ratio and present a greater risk, for example, a block of metal such as a metal ingot may be practically inert but could be extremely reactive when in the form of filings or shavings, dust or powder. Similarly, the risk from an aerosol (for instance, fine droplets in air) form of flammable liquid is much greater than for the bulk liquid. Processes that generate fine particles, like grinding and milling of flour and nanomaterials can present significant risks. Special control measures may be needed for handling such materials.

The classification of dust hazardous atmospheres is complex and depends on many factors, including the rate of dust dispersion and sedimentation characteristics, and particle size. Further information is contained in the following Australian Standards:

  • AS/NZS 4745: Code of practice for handling combustible dust
  • AS/NZS 60079.10.2: Explosive atmospheres – Classification of areas – Combustible dust atmospheres

Common examples of the types of industries and processes that have a potential for presenting a fire, explosion or implosion risk are listed in Appendix I.


Some activities, systems of work, structures and equipment that are not directly involved with the use, storage and handling of hazardous chemicals in the workplace may create a hazard that you need to be aware of when undertaking your risk assessment. These include:

  • Hazardous chemicals on adjacent or nearby premises that could be ignited by activities at your workplace and other substances and materials that are not hazardous chemicals but that could add to the overall fire load, such as wooden pallets, paper, combustible liquids or other combustible materials.
  • Activities and installations on adjacent premises, such as the operation of the plant, equipment and vehicles, deliveries of hazardous chemicals, personnel movements in normal and emergency situations, visitor access and the trial of site emergency procedures.
  • The proximity of sensitive facilities which may be put at risk by the presence of hazardous chemicals and during an emergency, such as schools, hospitals, child and aged care facilities, theatres, shopping centres and residences. These may require special consideration when planning for emergencies.
  • The presence of incompatible materials, either other chemicals or the materials that plant, equipment, storage and handling systems are made of which could react with the chemicals being stored or handled.
  • Foreseeable failures of the plant, equipment, storage systems, as well as natural disasters or extreme weather events such as temperature extremes, wind, lightning or rainfall, including the potential for flooding.
  • Other failures which could occur and events which may give rise to new hazards or greater risk. Any examination should be systematic and include consideration of the possibility of human error in the system’s operation.


Hazardous chemicals that are corrosive to metals can cause damage to plant and equipment, such as containers, pipes, fixtures and fittings. Corrosion can lead to leaks or complete failure and loss of containment of the chemical, resulting in serious damage to property, exposure of workers to the hazardous chemicals and potential injury and death.


Compressed and liquefied gases are used as fuel, a source of oxygen or as shielding gases in certain types of welding. The hazards associated with compressed and liquefied gases include fire, explosion, toxicity, asphyxiation, oxidation and uncontrolled release of pressure. Gas leakage is one of the greatest hazards.

Cylinders contain large volumes of gas under high pressure and precautions need to be taken when storing, handling and using cylinders.


Asphyxia is a condition that occurs where there is lack of oxygen. This can occur either through:

  • consumption of oxygen in the air (burning of fuel, or oxidation process such as microbial activity or rusting)
  • an accumulation of gases displacing oxygen in the air.
  • inhalation of the chemical affecting the ability of the body to use oxygen (for example, hydrogen cyanide can asphyxiate a person by binding to haemoglobin in the blood following inhalation). 

All gases, including fuel gases (for example, hydrogen, acetylene and liquid petroleum gas) and inert gases (for example, argon, helium and nitrogen) are an asphyxiation hazard in high concentrations.

Too little oxygen in the air that we breathe can cause fatigue and in extreme cases death. Using compressed and liquefied gases can result in dangerously low levels of oxygen. For example, gases that are heavier than air can accumulate in low lying areas such as pits, wells and cellars and gases that are lighter than air can accumulate in high areas such as roof spaces and lofts. Working in an enclosed or confined space with inadequate ventilation, where hazardous vapours can accumulate, is a potential asphyxiation hazard.

You should identify possible causes of asphyxiation in your workplace. In welding and allied processes, asphyxiation can occur from gas slowly leaking in a work area.


Compressed air can be hazardous and should be handled carefully by workers. For example, the sudden release of gas can cause hearing damage or even rupture an eardrum. Compressed air can also deeply penetrate the skin resulting in an air bubble in the bloodstream known as an embolism. Even a small quantity of air or other gas in the blood can be fatal.

Ensuring workers are trained to handle compressed air properly can eliminate many of the associated risks. Training and work procedures should emphasise the safe use of air tools and safeguard against the deliberate misuse of compressed air. Also, maintaining air receivers properly prevents the potential for an explosive rupture.

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