Sort Out Chemical Storage For Your Shop

There is one constant in the world of hardware hacker’s workshops, be they a private workshop in your garage or a public hackspace, and it goes something like this:

Everybody’s a safety expert in whatever it is they are working with, right up until the accident.

In other words, it is very tempting to harbour a cavalier attitude to something that either you are familiar with or the hazards of which you do not understand, and this breeds an environment in which mishaps become a distinct possibility.

As hardware people, we are familiar with basic tool safety or electrical safety. The chances are that we’ve had it drummed into us at some time in our growing up, by a lab supervisor, a workshop teacher, or a parent. That you as readers and I as writer have survived this long is testament enough to the success of that education. But what about those areas in which we may not have received such an education, those things which we either encounter rarely or seem harmless enough that their safety needn’t be our concern? Chemicals, for example: everything from glue through solvents and soldering consumables to PCB chemicals and even paint. It all seems safe enough, what could possibly go wrong? The answer to that question is probably something most of us would prefer never to find out, so it’s worth looking in to how a well-run workshop can manage its chemicals in as safe a manner as possible.

Read the instructions

The safety data sheet for acetone
The safety data sheet for acetone, a common solvent for 3D printer owners. (Sigma-Aldrich)

This might seem like something so obvious as to go without saying, but when you acquire a chemical, read its instruction sheet. It will have one somewhere in its packaging, or if not then there will be one available for download on its manufacturer’s web site. On it you will find all the information you should need about its likely hazards, how it should be used, and how it should be stored. From this information you can decide the most appropriate course of action for you to take with whatever the chemical is.

Know what you’ve got

It can be easy to amass a variety of tins, jars, bottles, and tubes of random chemicals over a lifetime of tinkering. Over time it can also be easy to lose track of exactly what your collection contains. Labels fade and drop off, you lose track of where you put that bottle, and you no longer know what you’ve got.

In some jurisdictions there is a legal requirement for commercial organisations to maintain an inventory of their chemical stocks. Though it might seem onerous, this is a worthwhile practice for any workshop even when it is not required by law. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a simple notebook will do, because it really helps to have some idea what you have. If something does cause an accident then knowing something about the likely source can help you a lot in terms of how you might deal with it.

Store everything appropriately.

This comes back to the earlier point about reading the data sheet. On it you’ll find details of how the product should be stored. If you are lucky it is an inert, non-corrosive and non-toxic solid that gives off no fumes and which you can store anywhere with impunity. It’s far more likely though that it will contain a solvent that gives off fumes, be flammable, an oxidising agent, or any one of a number of other hazards. You should therefore think not just about how it should be stored, but what it should be stored alongside.

A typical flameproof chemical storage cabinet, RS Stock No.424-5364.
A typical fireproof chemical storage cabinet, RS Stock No.424-5364.

Just as one example, it’s most likely that the majority of workshop chemicals will be of the variety containing a flammable solvent. These should be stored in a fireproof cabinet sitting in a spill tray, to both contain any fires within the cabinet and to contain any liquid spills. You might think that this would be a safe place to also store any other chemicals, but since each has its own requirements that might not be the case. Oxidising agents for example should not be stored alongside flammable solvents.

As a final point, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should chemicals be stored in the same place as food, such as a shared refrigerator. This might seem an obvious thing to say, but in communal workshops such as a hackspace it seems that there is always a member who considers that this restriction does not apply to them. If you are on the board of such a space, bin the chemical in question and ban the member. It’s far easier to do that than to deal with the police when someone is poisoned.

Keep on top of it

You might think that if you have a list of what you’ve got, and it’s all stored appropriately, that would be enough. But there is always scope for a disparity to creep in, someone puts something in the wrong cupboard, or fails to enter it in the book. Therefore you should undertake the tedious task once in a while of running an inventory. Check what you have in your inventory with what you have in your stores, and adjust accordingly.

Dispose of it appropriately

Find the appropriate place to dispose of your chemicals. Robert Kaufmann/FEMA Photo Library [Public domain].
Find the appropriate place to dispose of your chemicals. Robert Kaufmann/FEMA Photo Library [Public domain].
There will always come a moment when some chemical or other has outlived its usefulness, at which point it must be disposed of. The data sheet will tell you the appropriate place to dispose of it, and you should follow its advice. If you are lucky it will be something you can simply toss in the garbage, if not you may have to find your local chemical disposal point. Some common chemicals we might find in our workshops will especially need proper disposal, for example spent PCB etchant, in which the copper salts are particularly toxic to fish.

Ensure everybody is on the same page

There is little use in having a carefully planned system for managing your chemicals if it is not universally adhered to. Particularly in a shared space there will always be users who consider their qualifications to be such that the system does not apply to them, it is imperative that you ensure that all users treat it with due respect. If necessary institute a system for your shared space in which access to the chemicals is only gained after suitable training has been passed, and be prepared to wield the threat of removal of the privilege for those who fail to adhere to it.

We are fortunate in the world of hardware hackers and makers, that for most of us the chemicals we are likely to encounter will be an order of magnitude safer than those you might encounter in for example a chemistry lab. But we still encounter significant hazards, for example anyone with a 3D printer might care to look at the effects of an acetone fire. It is hoped that the points above should give us all a starting point for safe handling and storage of the chemicals in our workshops. After all, we’d all prefer to spend more time making things than explaining to fire officers exactly what the person they’re going in to rescue might have been using.

33 thoughts on “Sort Out Chemical Storage For Your Shop

  1. SDSs are your friends! ( No longer MSDS for some stupid reason, also the hazard scale ratings are inverted under the new system). Between SDSs and CAS numbers you can find any and all hazards for given chemicals or products.
    Do your local first responders a favor and keep a binder full of SDSs for every chemical you keep on hand even if it’s just denatured alcohol and PCB etch. Make sure it’s location is well known and marked.

    Don’t just buy fume cabinets and put them in the middle of the shop. They do no good if they aren’t properly ventilated, grounded, or otherwise used as designed. They aren’t cheap but neither will your insurance premiums be after a fire.
    If you can’t convince people to keep the really nasty stuff in their own workshops where people unfamiliar with the hazards can’t access it, or only keep the minimum on hand even if the small bottle is the same price as the 4L / gallon jug (do you really need 4L of 35% HCl?) consider limiting access in the form of a lock or key card system.

    Also make sure you have the appropriate spill kits for chemicals you keep on hand. Like fire extinguishers there are different types for different situations.

    1. Yes, the more information you can get the better. As well as the safety data sheets, which are useful, there are also books, like ‘Brethericks Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards’ and the like which have all sorts of additional knowledge, a lot of which is based on experience etc. Some chemicals can also go off over time to become more dangerous (like diethyl ether getting oxidised for instance).

  2. Also worth mentioning- a fire-safe garbage can for rags, paper towels, etc that are soaked with all those same chemicals. Things like acetone and boiled linseed oil can spontaneously combust very easily and burn down your shop while you sleep.

      1. Simply spreading them flat on a clothes line, not crumpling them into a big pile / ball, or placing a drying rack in an empty open section of the shop greatly reduces the risk.
        If you have solvent mixed with water then you run into more issues of disposal & what happens when they’re not miscible.

        1. yes, I agree that you don’t wan’t to be mixing solvent with water if they are not miscible, I was thinking more about the dried out rags and papers that still might contain some flammable stuff once all the volatiles have gone (including bits of paint or varnish, as these contain catalysts which can cause them to combust in air).

          1. Good point.
            The aim there should be to launder as soon as possible. Storing flat, not in a pile prevents the heat build up that causes fires, even for oils. Transporting wet or packaging wet to be disposed of is the safe course of action but make sure the people you’re giving them too know what they are to avoid a dumpster fire

  3. I’m a little shocked but not surprised this article doesn’t mention eye wash devices, a spill kit, safety glasses, 704 signs, UN numbers or the International Fireman’s Code. Everything you can keep is based on maximum allowable quantities now.

    If you are running a hacker space, you are basically operating like a local business and should be registered with the authorities.

    1. In some places, as a hackerspace, you may be required to register and keep a log as if a commercial operation. In others, you be not be. It depends on where you are and the details of organization.

      Where I am, a club and club premises do not necessarily fall under those rules unless (some nontrivial to interpret set of guidelines with regard to the structure of the organization and how non-members are dealt with that I haven’t kept up with). Once you pay an employee, or sell services or access to the general public, then you are commercial and ALL of the recordkeeping, storage, recordkeeping, safety, and recordkeeping rules apply.

      A locality near me classes pretty much any space not a dedicated residence (again, the details are not trivial, but cover most clubs and organizations that own, lease, rent, or otherwise have control of — this is the wording as best as I can recall– a property, space, ….. you get the point) as subject to the same guidelines as Conoco-Phillips, and may class a residence or associated property as such under a broad set of conditions.

      1. At work, we have all MSDS’s available for the fire department in a box inside the guard house.
        One of the rules in hazardous materials is communicating the risk to law enforcement, first responders or the fire department. If organizations feel they are exempt from federal law then they are not obeying the rules that everyone else has to follow.

        Does your organization have a copy of the Emergency Response Guide? If there is an accident, it is your responsibility to communicate the risk by providing the Emergency Response Guide number to law enforcement, first responders or the fire department. If they get injured in responding to a spill or accident, you will have a whole lot of legal trouble regardless as to whether you feel your organization is exempt or not.

        1. If you think you are exempt then chances are you aren’t reading the laws as much as those who are licensed.
          You are being reactive instead of proactive.

          All accidents start with:

          “I didn’t think”
          “I didn’t know”
          “I didn’t see”.

          When someone gets injured, it is a different ball game when the authorities get involved. The hospital has to file a report. Then reality is going to sink and everyone is going to say, “uh oh”.

          1. “I didn’t think”
            “I didn’t know”
            “I didn’t see”.
            While agree with your comment completely , but those are statements we hear after the fact when people are being asked what the hell where they thinking? Uh-oh is what they say as it occurs or shortly there after.

    2. Here we very specifically know that we’re not covered by workplace health and safety requirements. And no, we’re not misreading the rules. Doesn’t mean we don’t go out of our way to be safe, or to make it *exceedingly clear* to our members that there’s nobody but themselves that is liable/responsible for their safety, so they need to step up or step out.

      1. We had some temps at work and the boss said we could drive them in company vehicles because they signed a waiver. The temps are not on the insurance. So imagine someone got into an accident. We would have to take them to the hospital, right? And what do you think the hospital would say? It is a vehicle accident so let’s see your insurance. I doubt it for a minute they would care about a waiver saying we’re not responsible.

        You’re letting them do work that is not permitted on the insurance and for other people, organizations, the public or businesses to be around because you probably did not inform them so therefore you are exempt?

        1. > at work

          *We’re not an employer*, there are no employees or managers to be responsible for or to take responsibility. People are here by their own choice, and are not forced by economic reasons to be here. Visitors are covered by public liability insurance, but members aren’t (because they’re not ‘the public’). *Workplace* Health and Safety laws do *not* apply to us.

          You’re claiming we didn’t bother to get this explicitly confirmed via legal advice, with zero evidence.

          Also, we’ve got public healthcare, like most of the civilised world. If someone is injured, they can get treatment.

    3. It depends for where the information is applicable. In a chemistry lab or other environment in which chemicals are a major part of what they do, very much so yes. But in a hackspace the chemicals involved are an order of magnitude less scary than in a chemistry lab for example. Our worry with chemicals doesn’t involve poisons or corrosives, instead it’s some flamables and some that are nasty to dispose of.

      I came to writing this article as a hackspace director, and having worked in a chemistry lab in the past. Many hackspaces take very little notice of safety precautions, but in our case, Oxford Hackspace, we have had to be very careful to comply with everything possible due to the requirements of the organisation who sponsrs us. And in the context of British regulations and insurance companies it’s definitely the tools that they are most concerned about. If we changed our focus and did a lot more chemistry rather than simply having some chemicals associated with our other work, this would change, you can be sure of that.

    4. The article is more about storage, but i somewhat agree: Mentionning safety glasses and an eye wash device can’t be wrong. Also a _suitable_ fire extinguisher is a good thing to have and not only when dealing with flammable chemicals!

      Two other comments:
      >As a final point, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should chemicals be stored in the same place as food, such as a shared refrigerator.
      Solder paste is a chemical too. AFAIK it has to be stored in cold atmosphere so the temptation to put it in the fridge is high. Bad idea.

      > Oxidising agents for example should not be stored alongside flammable solvents.
      Also you really don’t want to store Acetone and some other chemical i prefer not to mention next one to each other so that if something goes wrong (leaking container, …) they could mix and react to some explosive stuff…

      Another important thing when talking about storage is access, in Hacker Spaces but also at home. Childs are quite smart and able to open a lot of “security bottles” and stuff like this (and something that is forbidden “don’t touch it’s dangerous” is especially interesting!), but also think about pets and even your partner that might not be familiar with chemicals and so on. Oh and of course this is true for EVERY home, not only for your home lab. Everybody has some chemicals for house cleaning, drain cleaner (nasty!), …

      1. > Solder paste is a chemical too. AFAIK it has to be stored in cold atmosphere so the temptation to put it in the fridge is high. Bad idea.

        Maybe invest in a small “dorm” style fridge? Clearly marked “Not Food Safe” and out next to the solder station? I’m also guessing that solder paste isn’t the only chemical that works best when cold, so there might be reason to keep in near the other chemical storage as well.

        1. Yes of course, a separate fridge is the right way. I didn’t want to say don’t put it in the fridge generally, just don’t put it in a fridge which is used for food.

  4. Which remembers me, for the last few months I happen to have a nearly full bottle of fuming sulfuric acid in the floor of my bedroom… And the cleaning lady isn’t very cautious. Neither is my two-year-old nephew.
    I’m taking action right now.

  5. Let us all take a lesson from the death of the uber-geek-hacker Alan Turing. He enjoyed electroplating with potassium cyanide near his bedroom as well as eating in that room and bedroom. And he died of cyanide poisoning, possibly due to inhalation or consumption.

  6. I appreciate the advice about storing chemicals in a fireproof cabinet and to separate them depending on their categories. My roommate has been bringing chemicals home, and he will be buying more in the future because of his profession. I want to make sure the chemicals are stored properly, so thanks for the useful post.

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