Plastic gas cans are sold and used everywhere. They’re a typical choice to keep in the trunk of your car, just in case the car runs out of gas at some point. Anyone using a lawnmower, chainsaw, or other gas-powered equipment likely has a red plastic gas can for fueling the tank.
However, these commonplace plastic cans are potentially very dangerous. Here are some points to consider the next time you decide which kind of gas can to use around your jobsite, place of business, or home.
The Dangers of Plastic Gas Cans
Plastic gas cans are potentially dangerous even if they are being used properly. Depending on where you store and use it, you could be taking your life into your hands simply by handling your plastic gas can. Since 1998, at least 11 deaths and over 1,200 ER visits have been attributed to explosions while pouring gas. In fact, the way many inexpensive gas cans are made increases the risk of explosion significantly.
Explosion When Pouring
All gas cans can potentially burst if they are not stored and handled properly, but plastic gas cans have a particular risk for exploding. Any time the vapors from a gas can contact a heat source or flame, the gasoline inside can ignite. This flashback occurs even if vapors some distance from the can connect with a flame, since the vapors can travel back down the nozzle.
Vapors tend to collect when a small amount of gas is stored in a can at cool temperatures. Then, if gas is poured at a certain angle, the vapors escape rapidly and increase the risk of igniting. If you think you’re pouring gas clear of any heat source, remember even a small spark of electric static is enough to catch gas vapors on fire. This is why pouring gas in a plastic-lined truck bed or the carpeted trunk of a car is especially dangerous.
Missing Flame Arrestors
A flame arrestor is a simple screen, ideally made of brass, at the opening of a gas can’s outlet. It allows gas to flow out, but should a spark flow up the nozzle of the can, it extinguishes the fire before it can reach the liquid gas. This prevents a small fire from turning into an explosion when the liquid gas combusts.
Some gas cans are insufficiently designed, rendering their flame arrestors inefficient, while others are specifically manufactured without an arrestor to save pennies on each can. Although many federal regulators have requested manufacturers to include arrestors in their plastic gas can design, it’s made little difference in many instances. The arrestors are often not constructed properly and end up causing even more gas spills.
Plastic Gas Cans Are A Public Safety Concern
There are countless stories about kids knocking over gas cans on their bikes or people filling up household equipment like lawnmowers and experiencing injury or death from a resulting explosion caused by a spark. Gas cans used in basements and garages are sometimes too close to a water heater’s pilot light where the vapors can catch fire and the can bursts into flames.
Gas can manufacturer Blitz is an example of how efforts made to protect the public from shoddy gas can design don’t always amount to true changes. In 2009, Blitz was not producing a child-proof gas can. Congress forced the company to change its design, and now Blitz is going out of business. This has not necessarily made plastic gas cans on the market any safer.
OSHA Requirements For Plastic Gas Cans
You may not be legally able to use red plastic gas cans on your jobsite. OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1926.152(a)(1) states that "only approved containers and portable tanks shall be used for storage and handling of flammable and combustible liquids.” It goes on to say that gas cans must be “approved safety cans or Department of Transportation approved containers” in most cases if they are to meet OSHA standards.
Cheap, $5 plastic cans often meet EPA, California Air Resources Board, or Air Quality Management District standards (as commonly advertised on the container). However, does not mean they are up to DOT and OSHA, requirements.
The Hard Truth About Plastic Gas Cans
When purchasing a gas can, you should always put safety first. Make sure your can has a flame arrestor and is designed to pour without spilling or leaking. Never pour gas near an open flame or any potential source of a spark. Instead of risking explosion with a cheap gas can, find a can made of quality materials and that is designed to keep you safe during fueling and storage.