Explosions when cutting used fuel tanks and metal drums

WorkSafe is issuing a safety alert about the hazards associated with cutting used fuel tanks and metal drums.



A man recently sustained fatal injuries after a fuel tank exploded. It is believed the man was using an electric grinder to cut into the tank when fuel vapour ignited, causing the explosion.

Safety issues

Fuel tanks and metal drums are used to store flammable or combustible liquid (eg. diesel, petrol, paint thinners, turpentine, solvents, oil-based paints, automotive transmission/engine oils, industrial lubricants, cooking oils). Residue and vapours can remain long after the contents have been emptied.

There have been a number of incidents of explosions and serious burn injuries after tools have been used to adapt tanks and drums for other purposes. Tools used have included angle grinders, plasma cutters, oxy-acetylene burners, welding equipment and common portable electric saws fitted with metal cutters. In some cases, bystanders have been injured by drums which have become projectiles following an explosion. 

Recommended ways to control risks

  • If intending to reuse or recycle tanks or drums, hire a specialist in cleaning, gas monitoring and destruction of used drums. Rinsing tanks and drums with water does not guarantee removal of residue or vapours.
  • Never cut into or apply heat to tanks and drums that once contained flammable or combustible liquids if they have not been cleaned by a specialist. Even tanks and drums that have been empty for a very long time can contain enough residual substance to explode and/or emit hazardous vapour when exposed to heat.
  • Ensure all tanks and drums held on the premises are correctly labelled and (if applicable) a safety data sheet (SDS) is available for their contents.
  • Keep the tanks and drums away from oxy-acetylene torches, naked flames or sparks from grinding and welding equipment. Tanks and drums are not suitable to be used as welding or work platforms.
  • Ensure that all employees and persons at the premises are informed of the hazards associated with cutting or working near tanks and drums with heat producing tools and equipment.
  • Store empty tanks and drums (with bungs removed) in a well-ventilated place away from other work areas. Note removing the bung does not guarantee that all hazardous residues and vapours have been naturally vented. Always dispose of tanks and drums appropriately.

Before reusing a fuel tank or metal drum, ask yourself:

  • What has the tank or drum been used for?
  • Did it contain a flammable or combustible liquid, eg diesel or gas? 
  • Did it contain a chemical? 
  • Is there a hazard label on the tank or drum?

If you answered 'yes' or do not know the answer to any of these questions, follow the recommended ways to control risks and do not apply heat to the tank or drum.

Legal duties

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors. Where the risk cannot be eliminated, it must be reduced so far as is reasonably practicable.

Employers must also ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons other than employees are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from the employer's undertaking.

Employers must provide employees with the necessary information, instruction, training and supervision to enable them to do their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health.

Employees must take reasonable care for their own health and safety at work, and the health and safety of others who may be affected by their acts or omissions at a workplace.

The Dangerous Goods (Storage and Handling) Regulations 2012 also sets out legal duties for occupiers of premises where dangerous goods are stored or handled. The Code of Practice for storage and handling of dangerous goods provides practical information on how to comply.

Please note the Dangerous Goods (Storage and Handling) Amendment (Notification) Regulations 2021 come into effect on 1 July 2021 (Amended Notification Regulations).

This information has not yet been updated to reflect the changes introduced by the Amended Notification Regulations. Complying with the guidance after 1 July 2021 may not necessarily mean compliance with a duty under the Amended Notification Regulations. Information on the Dangerous Goods Act 1985 and associated regulations can be found on:

Australian Standards

  • AS1674.1-1997 – Safety in welding & allied processes, Part 1: Fire

Further information