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Spontaneous Combustion of Oily Rags

In the News: A spa employee left a load of laundry in the dryer over night. The cycle finished and the clothes were simply left in the dryer so they could be folded the following morning. When the employee returned she noticed the entire laundry room was filled with smoke, causing severe smoke damage to the room, supplies, and all the freshly cleaned linens left in the room. The fire department concluded that the fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of oil residue left on the towels and the lack of ventilation in the dryer.

Two days later the facility experienced a surplus of laundry and as a result towels, linens, and robes were placed in plastic containers to wash the following day. The oils spontaneously combusted again, this time burning through the entire facility. The facility owner reported $600,000 in damages, not including the untold thousands more in lost business.

What is Spontaneous Combustion?

Spontaneous combustion of oily laundry occurs when a flammable or combustible substance is slowly heated to its ignition point through oxidation. A substance will begin to release heat as it oxidizes. If this heat has no way to escape, like in a dryer or pile, the temperature will raise to a level high enough to ignite the oil and ignite the laundry. Spontaneous Combustion of Oily RagsFitness centers and spas with towel service are at a greatly increased risk of spontaneous combustion fires due to both the large amount of laundry they process, and the high quantity of flammable substances they utilize.

Statistics and Scope of Problem

Fire caused by spontaneous combustion of oily laundry is a serious, yet relatively unknown, hazard facing businesses. The scope of the hazard has been difficult to quantify due to the difficult nature of determining the causes of fires. A recent survey of hundreds of spa proprietors, however, has shed some new light on the prevalence of the problem.

  • 74% do their own laundry in house.
  • 10% of spas doing their own laundry experienced a laundry related fire.
  • 25% of these fires were caused by spontaneous combustion.
  • 72% do not conduct regular fire drills.
  • Only 50% of spas have a written laundry safety protocol.

Preventing Spontaneous Combustion

  1. Wash and dry items by type and use: Linens, towels, robes, etc. should be sorted and washed separately. Also, items used for hair care should not be washed or dried with items used for nail care. Chemicals and products used for these different services may not mix well and could combust. Organizing and separating items is important in ensuring that dangerous mixes of chemicals is avoided and will also help keep laundry organized efficiently.
  2. Don’t let soiled or saturated items sit too long: If oily laundry sits in a pile too long the heat generated as the oil oxidizes will increase. With no way of cooling, the heat will increase to a point that the oils will combust, starting the laundry on fire. Storing them in a canister that limits oxygen, soaking in water, or promptly washing them will reduce the chances of spontaneous combustion.
  3. Store laundry in well ventilated areas: Keeping the laundry room cool is important. By keeping air flow in the room, the temperature will stay lower and reduce the risk of laundry getting too heated and combusting.
  4. Wash thoroughly on hot cycle: Using a hot water cycle to clean oily laundry will help remove the substances more efficiently than a cold cycle.
  5. Dry at proper temperatures: Drying laundry at too high of temperatures can greatly increase the risk of spontaneous combustion. Any residues that are left over after the wash cycle will be at a much greater risk of ignition if the dryer temperature is too high.
  6. Outsource: The most effective method for avoiding spontaneous combustion fires is to outsource all your laundry needs to an outside company. Many companies contract with large facilities like health clubs and spas and are capable of safely meeting all the laundry needs of your facility. Paying a service to pick up, clean, and drop off laundry can eliminate the hazard of piles of oily laundry waiting to be cleaned.
  7. Create a written safety protocol for laundry: Suggested laundry safety guidelines include keeping a log of who starts and finishes a load, prohibiting drying clothes over night, outlining proper storage of laundry waiting to be dried, keeping laundry area free of combustibles, and more. Make sure employees are aware of the hazards of spontaneous combustion and how to properly dispose of items that have come into contact with substances that may be dangerous.

Topics: Facility Maintenance