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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 activation.

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 practice”.


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.

TG07: Laboratories

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