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Empty Drums: A Potentially Explosive Problem

- January 14, 2013 by Glen O'Rourke, ALCM (View all posts by Glen)

Empty 55 gallon drums can be put to good use for such items as a refuse container (if the top is removed) or as a barbeque (if cut in half length wise). However, getting the drum in to that condition may be extremely hazardous.

The drum in question may have contained a flammable liquid. Even if empty of the liquid, residual vapors could possibly be present inside the drum. Remember, it is the vapors (not the liquid) that ignite and burn.

In March of 2012, at a firm in Los Angeles County an employee was using a plasma cutter to cut empty metal 55 gallon drums. Flammable vapors inside a drum that was being cut ignited and the drum exploded, resulting in the employee’s clothes catching on fire. The employee suffered burns over 85% of his body and later died due to the burns. The firm subsequently received five citations from Cal-OSHA resulting in a fine $30,760 (Cal-OSHA Reporter, Vol. 39, No.46, November 30, 2012).

Never use a cutting torch, saw, or other device that produces heat or sparks to cut a metal drum unless that drum has been cleaned with hot water and purged with an inert gas according to procedures outlined in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 327, Cleaning or Safeguarding Small Tanks and Containers. Furthermore, there is a Cal-OSHA standard (General Industry Safety Order 5166(b)) that prohibits such cutting of drums “until they have been cleaned so thoroughly as to make absolutely certain that there are no flammable materials present.”

If planning on using a drum for something other than its original purpose of a storage container, be sure to take proper precautions to make it safe if any cutting of the drum is to take place. Taking these precautions can keep you alive.


 Cal-OSHA Reporter, Vol. 39, No.46, November 30, 2012.

“California Code of Regulations, Title 8, Section 5166. Cleaning, Repairing, or Altering Containers.”  January 3, 2013. http://www.dir.ca.gov/title8/5166.html.