Removing “Spontaneous Combustion” From Fire Investigation and Prevention

Written By: Caltha LLP | Published On: 11th May 2017 | Category: Hazardous Materials, OSHA, Waste | RSS Feed

The speaker phone comes alive with tones, beeps and recorded instructions. One-by-one tones chime in announcing another participant as entered the conference call. After the routine greetings and roll call, we are ready to begin. Today’s call is to discuss a recent fire incident at a plant which required response from the fire department and resulted in some moderate damage to products and to a storage area. The purpose was to conduct a Root-Cause Analysis which could then be used to determine if additional fire prevention measures are appropriate to reduce the chances of reoccurrence at this and other company locations.

The plant manager was asked to detail the incident and the suspected cause. “This should be a short call – we know the cause was spontaneous combustion”. There is a group sigh of relief – they will be able to get on with other pressing issues of the day. After all, it was spontaneous combustion – no one could have predicted it and therefore we could not have prevented it. These things just happen.

What occurred was a lost opportunity. A lost opportunity to have a meaningful investigation into what could have been a more serious incident. A lost opportunity to gain insights that could provide direction to more effective fire prevention. By allowing “spontaneous combustion” to be considered a cause, we are left with few options – make sure the insurance is paid and the fire exits are clear.

Let us be clear, there is no doubt that spontaneous combustion (autoignition) of certain materials at normal temperatures can occur; however, the list of these materials is quite short. Using the term “spontaneous combustion” allows us to ignore the basic recipe for a fire:

Fuel – flammable or combustible material

Ignition source – including heat generated by chemical reactions of incompatible materials, and


By taking “spontaneous combustion” off the table as a cause, it leads us to more productive investigations:

What was the fuel source?
What was the source of ignition?
Could ignitable vapors have been present?
Were there materials or chemicals present which could have reacted, especially in mixtures such as wastes?
How were materials being stored?
What types of containers are used?

Most people who have been involved in these types of investigations will appreciate that not all questions can be answered. However, the process of considering these factors can be instructive to the group and enhance fire prevention:

Where are we storing our flammable and combustible materials?
Have we identified risk areas for exothermic chemical reactions?
Have we minimized the opportunity for ignitable vapors to be created?
How do we minimize the chances of mixing incompatible materials?
How can we keep containers closed to prevent an oxygen source?
Do containers contribute to combustible materials?

If you want to change the mind-set of your organization, edit fire investigation forms, fire prevention plans, etc. – each place where “spontaneous combustion” occurs, replace it with a more accurate phase:

We don’t know what happened and didn’t take the time to figure it out

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