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The nature and extent of laboratories varies tremendously, ranging from a small

QC lab attached to a manufacturing operation through to full scale laboratory

premises conducting a wide range of activities, such as quality control, research

and development, or with experimental study in a particular branch of science or

engineering. Many will contain expensive, highly sophisticated equipment. Pilot

plant may also be commonly encountered in laboratories within the

manufacturing sector.

Based on the expectation that the quantities of hazardous materials encountered

will be comparatively small and that these are used under controlled conditions,

the hazards presented by laboratories will be generally rated as low to moderate.

However, serious fire hazards can be encountered arising from the presence of

excessive quantities of flammable or reactive chemicals, uncontrolled ignition

sources, or inadequate procedures and equipment for handling hazardous

substances. There may also be biological, mechanical, chemical or radiation

hazards which, whilst unlikely to cause fire, could possibly endanger occupants or

fire fighting personnel.

Fire safety in laboratories is the subject of the RISCAuthority document RC5 which

is filed in Atlas and which should be adopted as recognised “best practice” in

respect of risk assessment and control in the laboratory environment. An

extensive check list is included in RC5 which provides a useful aide memoire for

use on site. Whilst mainly focusing on the industrial sector, the recommendations

of RC5 are also intended to apply to laboratories in educational establishments.


The following represent some of the key fire and explosion factors for

consideration when conducting surveys of laboratories:

1. Construction

Laboratory buildings or areas should preferably be of fire resisting construction

in which adequate separation from any adjoining buildings is a key risk control

measure. The extent of fire compartmentation required will be dependent on

factors such as the values at risk and the nature of the laboratory activities

conducted. Generally, a minimum 120 minutes fire resistance of compartment

walls separating laboratories from the adjoining production and storage areas

should be achieved.

Particularly hazardous activities should be undertaken in separate specially

designed laboratories which preferably should be detached from the main

laboratory complex or production facilities.

The extent of combustible construction materials, externally and internally,

including partitions, linings, ceilings and building insulation must be clearly established as smoke contamination has been shown to be a key feature of

fires in laboratories, particularly where clean room environments are present.

2. Electrical Installation

Particular attention should be given to the condition of the electrical installation

within the laboratory environment. Compliance with BS 7671 and the Electricity

at Work Regulations is paramount, together with ensuring that any electrical

equipment installed within a flammable or a dust laden atmosphere is

adequately protected.

Sufficient socket outlets should be provided to avoid the need for trailing leads

etc, preferably with pilot light protection.

3. Space Heating and Air Conditioning

Portable heaters of any type are generally unsuitable for use in laboratories.

Ducted air handling systems should be self-contained from others serving the

remainder of the building, to reduce both incoming and outgoing contamination. Fresh air intakes must be sited to avoid ingress of undesirable contaminants and exhaust air should pass through an effective filter system, especially where toxic, infectious or radioactive material may be involved.

Automatic fire dampers, operated by fusible link or smoke detectors, should be

fitted to ducts passing through compartment walls or floors. Air-movement

characteristics may need to be investigated where automatic fire detection

systems are used in air-conditioned environments.

4. Laboratory Heating Equipment

Whenever a laboratory is to be left unattended for a significant period of time a

check should be made to ensure, where possible, that all heated equipment

has been effectively isolated. There should be heat resistant surfaces for free

standing equipment and built-in equipment provided with suitable insulation

and ventilation.

Ovens and furnaces, especially where operating unattended, should have

overriding non-automatically resetting thermal cut out devices, in additional to

normal thermostats.

5. High Value Equipment

Major laboratories will often contain items of high value equipment such as

computers, spectrometers etc which may require particular attention to be

given to protection from fire, water damage and chemical spillages.

6. Hazardous Materials

Flammable liquids and gases will feature within most laboratory environments

and the need to carry out an effective risk assessment in accordance with the

Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) is

paramount to ensuring that these are stored and used in a safe manner. This will include the provision of suitable storage facilities and the appropriate use of

safety containers. For general guidance no more than 50 litres of highly

flammable liquids should be stored in each room of a laboratory for which

purpose-built fire resisting cabinets should be provided.

Where liquids or gases are supplied by piped services from external tanks or

cylinder banks, particular care should be taken that fire safety is not

compromised. All such connections should be made via rigid metal pipework

fitted with suitable quick-action isolation valves, both at the point of supply and

delivery. Pipelines should be colour- coded and clearly marked indicating the

direction of the flow of the contents. Where fire alarm protection is provided,

automatic isolation valves linked to the fire alarm system should be installed

whereby flammable liquid or gas lines are automatically isolated on fire alarm


Some non-compatible chemicals can present a fire or explosion risk should

they become accidentally mixed; therefore, separate storage facilities are

essential. Highly flammable liquids especially should be stored separately from

strong oxidising agents, organic peroxides, strong reducing agents or acids.

7. Fume Cupboards

Hazardous work should be confined to purpose designed fume cupboards

appropriate for the activity conducted. Fume cupboards should be of fire

resisting or, at least, non-combustible construction. Attention should be given

to the construction and routing and of extract ducts particularly where piercing

compartment walls and floors. Plastic ducting serving fume cupboards where

heating processes are conducted should, where possible, be avoided.

Where highly flammable liquids are employed then a DSEAR risk assessment

should determine the degree to which electrical equipment within the fume

cupboard is eliminated or protected, based on recognised zoning principles.

Circumstances will arise where extract fan motors, controls and other electrical

equipment are required to be installed external to the fume cupboard and the

extract system, or flameproof or similar equipment provided appropriate to the

hazard zone. This principal should also apply to portable electrical equipment.

In order to comply with COSHH, all fume cupboards should be tested and

maintained at 14-month intervals as per local exhaust ventilation systems

generally. In addition, weekly functionality testing is recommended “best


8. Management and Housekeeping

As with any occupancy, management and housekeeping are key factors for

consideration within the overall risk assessment process. On some occasions,

conditions within the laboratory environment may leave somewhat to be

desired reflecting on poor management standards and an overall lack of fire

safety awareness.

Full guidance concerning fire safety management is detailed in RC5.

Particular attention should be given to pilot plant and unattended operations,

the latter being a common feature within the laboratory environment.

Information regarding such features should be detailed by Consultants in the

survey report.

9. Fire Protection

The active fire protection needs of laboratories will vary considerably having

regard to the nature of the risk and the hazards of the activities conducted.

Extinguishers appropriate for the environment to BS 5306; Part 8 must be a

minimum requirement in all areas, together with fire blankets. Beyond this

minimum requirement, consideration may need to be given to the protection of

hazardous items of plant with fixed gaseous suppression systems, overall

protection by an automatic fire alarm system or, in some cases, sprinklers.

Fume cupboards can be effectively protected with “in cabinet” fire suppression

systems and such protection should be recommended for particularly

hazardous and/or business critical facilities.

10. Security

As previously highlighted, many laboratories will contain items of expensive

and highly sophisticated plant which can be particularly vulnerable to theft and

malicious damage. Laboratories may also be involved in research and

development activities of a highly sensitive nature.

Particular care should be taken to ensure that security arrangements are

commensurate with the risk, not just in respect of hardware, but in relation to

overall security management of the laboratory facilities.

Consultants will need no reminding that any laboratory or research facility

which employs animals for research purposes, or is linked to such an

establishment, will be highly vulnerable to arson, requiring that special

attention is given to fire and security protections.

In addition to considering the risk of Material Damage, work conducted in

laboratories is often highly business critical and, as such, full consideration may

need to be given to contingency planning as set out in RC5, together with

ensuring that all critical data is adequately protected.

Occasions may arise where owing to the covers provided; we are required to

provide information on other “non –standard” perils. Typically, this might include:

  • Spoilage. This relates to losses involving spoilage should an artificially

controlled environment suffer an issue from temperature, humidity level etc.

- e.g. freezers, incubators, actual rooms. Assessment to include age and

condition of equipment, maintenance arrangements, critical alarms, standby

power, business impact, etc.

  • Contamination – use of human tissues, prevention of cross-contamination

(first and third party).

  • Machinery Breakdown – identification of critical plant and machinery,

preventative maintenance, business continuity arrangements, etc.


Fire Safety in Chemical Laboratories, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.


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