Handling used metal drums

Highlights the precautions that need to be taken to prevent an explosion while handling used metal drums.



Recently, there have been a number of explosions in workplaces, schools and domestic premises because a 205-litre (44 gallon) or smaller metal drum has been used for a purpose other than its intended use, such as makeshift workbenches for welding or cutting other materials.

Drums were cut using tools including angle grinders, plasma cutters, and oxyacetylene burners, welding equipment or common portable electric saws fitted with metal cutters.

Inside the drums, there was still residue of flammable or combustible liquid (eg paint thinners, petrol, turpentine, solvents, oil-based paints, automotive transmission/engine oils, industrial lubricants, cooking oils).

When these drums were cut with this residue inside, they exploded, resulting in death and serious burn injuries. In some cases, the drum became a projectile after the initial explosion, leading to further injury by striking people who were not beside the drum.

Control measures

  • To eliminate or reduce the risk of injury from drums:
  • dispose of drums appropriately by contacting a suitable drum recycling collection company
  • if recycling drums, hire a specialist in the cleaning, gas monitoring and destruction of used drums
  • never cut drums that have contained flammable or combustible liquids
  • remember even 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
  • be aware that rinsing drums with water does not guarantee vapours are purged
  • do not apply heat to drums that have held chemicals (eg pesticides) as any vapour emitted may still cause an explosion or cause serious injury
  • never weld, grind or do any other hot work activity near empty drums
  • do not use drums as a welding or work platform
  • correctly label all drums on-site
  • have material safety data sheets available for all products
  • store empty drums (bungs removed) in a well-ventilated place away from other work areas. Removing the bung will not guarantee all hazardous residues and vapours have been naturally vented. These drums are still not safe to cut or apply heat to
  • ensure workers are informed of the hazards associated with cutting or working near drums with heat producing tools and equipment.

Safety checklist

Before reusing a drum, ask yourself:

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

If you answered ‘yes’ or do not know the answer to any of these questions: do not apply heat to the drum.

Keep the drum away from oxyacetylene torches, naked flames or sparks from grinding and welding equipment.