Every year the uncontrolled ignition of petrol in the motor vehicle repair and maintenance sector results in a number of fires and explosions.
In the vehicle maintenance industry, the risk of fires is significant, given the variety of flammable substances that can be found in the workplace, including engine oils, petrol and welding gases.
Petrol is a highly volatile liquid and gives off vapour even in very cold conditions (down to –40 degrees C) which when mixed with air in the correct proportions forms a highly flammable atmosphere, easily ignited.
The vapour, which is easily released when petrol is being handled and not easily dispersed in still conditions, is also invisible, heavier than air and will travel over considerable distances collecting in low-lying areas such as inspection pits or drains. This means that ignition sources remote from the petrol can still be dangerous.
Fires are often able to spread easily, rapidly and unhindered and will cause considerable material damage to premises and equipment. More importantly, fires can cost lives.
In the motor vehicle repair industry, the risk of fire is heightened by a routine task that will be familiar to most repair shops and maintenance garages: fuel tank draining.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, most fires and explosions are caused by the mishandling of petrol when draining fuel tanks and lines. There have been over 8,000 injuries and 24 deaths in the motor vehicle repair industry over the last five years, according to the regulator.
There are a number of reasons petrol may need to be drained from a car – most commonly a motorist may have put the wrong fuel in their vehicle, or a vehicle may need to be scrapped and will need the fuel removing before this can happen.
It is believed that there are 150,000 incidents of people misfuelling their cars every year, all of which require the fuel tank to be drained.
Clearly, draining fuel from vehicles represents a fire risk. All that is needed for a fire to start or explosion to occur is the correct combination of fuel, air and a source of ignition.
Garage repair shops contain many potential sources of ignition which apart from cigarettes and matches include heaters (particular gas boilers with pilot lights), welding, electrical equipment and static electricity.
This articles highlights effective strategies businesses can implement to help minimise the risk of fire when undertaking fuel tank draining. These measures encompass employee competency, work environment, and equipment.
It is vital that an appropriately trained competent employee/s has responsibility for this task – allowing a worker unversed in fuel draining to undertake the task is dangerous. Whoever undertakes tank draining should be trained in working with flammable liquids and be well aware of the risks and potential hazards involved.
Under no circumstances should vehicles be drained of fuel while located over an inspection pit. This is dangerous, and there have been many cases of death and injury resulting from this process.
In one incident, a garage owner suffered almost 50 per cent burns to his body when petrol vapours ignited. He had been draining petrol from a fuel tank over a vehicle pit and been using a hose to transfer the petrol from the tank into fuel cans.
In another, a man died when draining petrol from a fuel tank, from an inspection pit, into a plastic bucket. The patrol vapours ignited, possibly because of a broken inspection lamp.
To minimise the risk of a fire, ensure the vehicle is positioned in a well ventilated area, ideally in the open air, and free from potential sources of ignition.
It is also crucial that fuel is handled and stored correctly, appropriate containers are used and precautions are taken against static electricity.
The best way to handle fuel is to transfer it straight into a metal container and the top should be closed at all times when not in use. Plastic containers need to be avoided and certainly never used for storing more than 10 litres.
Containers should also be clearly marked and robust – sturdy enough so that they cannot be knocked over easily.
One useful and recommended tool for draining fuel is a proprietary fuel retriever. This is a device that ensures fuel is drained from a fuel tank in a safe and controlled way in to a suitable container. It eliminates the risk of static electricity, which could cause a spark and ignite the fuel vapours.
Martin Hartley, property class specialist at Aviva, said: "Handling petrol needs great care, an appreciation of the risks involved and implementation of safe working procedures. These can be identified by carrying out the required Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) risk assessment.
"The safest method of removing petrol from a tank is by a competent person using a proprietary fuel retriever with the appropriate adapters, in a well ventilated area, in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions."Our preferred supplier, Denios, offers a range of fire safety solutions at discounted rates to Aviva insured customers. Call the Risk Helpline on 0845 366 66 66 for further details.