Oxygen - Safety and Precautions - Combustion and Other Hazards

Combustion and Other Hazards

Highly concentrated sources of oxygen promote rapid combustion. Fire and explosion hazards exist when concentrated oxidants and fuels are brought into close proximity; however, an ignition event, such as heat or a spark, is needed to trigger combustion. Oxygen itself is not the fuel, but the oxidant. Combustion hazards also apply to compounds of oxygen with a high oxidative potential, such as peroxides, chlorates, nitrates, perchlorates, and dichromates because they can donate oxygen to a fire.

Concentrated O2 will allow combustion to proceed rapidly and energetically. Steel pipes and storage vessels used to store and transmit both gaseous and liquid oxygen will act as a fuel; and therefore the design and manufacture of O2 systems requires special training to ensure that ignition sources are minimized. The fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew in a launch pad test spread so rapidly because the capsule was pressurized with pure O2 but at slightly more than atmospheric pressure, instead of the 1⁄3 normal pressure that would be used in a mission.

Liquid oxygen spills, if allowed to soak into organic matter, such as wood, petrochemicals, and asphalt can cause these materials to detonate unpredictably on subsequent mechanical impact. As with other cryogenic liquids, on contact with the human body it can cause frostbites to the skin and the eyes.

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    The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
    Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say,
    Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death,
    And prophesying with accents terrible
    Of dire combustion and confused events,
    New-hatched to the woeful time.
    William Shakespeare (1564–1616)