Injury prevention

Hand sanitizers can ignite, cause burns, experts warn workers

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Photo: Melissa Ruminski

Rockville, MD — Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help prevent the transmission of COVID-19, the liquid solutions – most of which contain isopropyl alcohol – are flammable and can cause burn injuries, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America is warning workers.

In a May 1 safety memo, the association describes an incident in which a worker suffered first- and second-degree burns to the hands after using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and then touching a metal surface before the liquid evaporated. “Due to static electricity, the vapor from the hand sanitizer ignited with an almost invisible flame on both hands,” the memo states.

The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry issued a similar warning, saying workers should act with caution when using these products.

“A best practice to protect employees from this hazard includes waiting to let the sanitizer fully absorb into the skin or evaporate prior to returning to work,” Jennifer L. Rose, consultation director of the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Program at the state’s DOLI, told Safety+Health. “Isopropyl alcohol is highly flammable and can easily ignite. Vapors may form explosive mixtures with air, traveling to a source of ignition and flash back. It is not really the liquid burning – it is the vapors that catch fire.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol against SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – particularly on jobsites where soap and water aren’t readily available. MCAA identifies construction worksites and mechanical service areas as high risk for burn injuries related to hand sanitizers.

 

Potential causes of ignition on a jobsite, Rose said, include:

  • Sparks from electrical tools and equipment
  • Sparks, arcs and hot metal surfaces from welding and cutting
  • Smoking tobacco products
  • Open flames from portable torches and heating units as well as boilers, pilot lights, ovens and driers
  • Sparks from grinding and crushing operations
  • Sparks caused by static electricity

“Isopropyl alcohol should be kept away from heat, sparks, flames and other sources of ignition, as well as strong oxidizers, acetaldehyde, chlorine, ethylene oxide, acids and isocyanates,” Rose said. “Isopropyl alcohol should be stored in a tightly closed container in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area. Hand sanitizer in quantities above 5 gallons should be stored in a flammable liquids cabinet or in areas protected by an automatic sprinkler system.”

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