Oily Rags Can Be Lethal: Protect Yourself, Protect Your Family

Oily Rags Can Be Lethal: Protect Yourself, Protect Your Family

Oily Rags Can Be Lethal: Protect Yourself, Protect Your Family

By Brad Tower

Christmas 2016 was the first since the death of my three children. Ben, Maddy and Sam were my angels, and my world was torn apart when they lost their lives on March 4, 2016. Their death was caused by rags that had been used to clean up cooking oil in a restaurant. Those rags had been brought home to be laundered and returned to the restaurant the next day. They had been washed with detergent, dried in the dryer and piled in a plastic milk crate by the front door before bedtime so the children’s mother would remember to take them back to the restaurant the next day. But that day never came.

Oily rags are items that few people would consider a danger. But according to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 14,000 fires are started every year due to spontaneous combustion or chemical reaction; 1,600 of those fires are in someone’s home. In 2016, my children were sleeping upstairs in one of those homes, and none of them escaped.

The rags were still warm when piled into the milk crate. As the residual oil molecules broke down in the pile with little ventilation, the temperature in the center of the rag pile climbed. During the night the rags burst into flames, igniting the couch and other living room furniture. By the time anyone was aware of the danger, it was too late.

The danger from structure fires is not as Hollywood would have you believe. Scenes of people stumbling down a burning hallway with a cloth over their mouth are unrealistic. The danger in a structure fire is that the air itself kills, not the flames. At 600 degrees, the first breath cooks the tissue in your lungs, making the next breath impossible. The only defense is to slow a fire’s progression to allow for escape, get early warning via smoke detectors or to prevent the fire in the first place.

Perhaps you, like me, are surprised to hear that “clean” laundry is a danger. I had heard of oily rags spontaneously combusting, but envisioned rags soaked with motor oil or solvents left in the sun or a hot garage. But once they had been washed? I was shocked. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Have you ever actually read the warning labels on your laundry machines? Half of the warning is dedicated to this threat. Mine reads, “Do not put articles soiled with vegetable or cooking oil in the dryer, as these oils may not be removed during washing. Due to the remaining oil the fabric may catch on fire by itself.” That fire may occur in the dryer, or as in my case, after the items were removed but not provided sufficient ventilation.

As Charles Dickens’ ghost of Jacob Marley said, “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” Please, protect your families. Whether cooking at home or at your restaurant, remember that all oils are flammable, and cleaning rags that have been used to wipe up cooking oil should be considered a potential ignition source. Ventilation is key – avoid machine drying, and never EVER leave soiled kitchen rags in a large pile.

My heart is broken. If you are reading this, it is because you are meant to understand and avoid a similar heartbreak. That would be a gift to both of us from my angels.


This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Washington Hospitality Magazine and adapted for the HERO Manual.


Rev. 12/14/16


This article is an excerpt from the Handbook for Excellent Restaurant Operations (HERO), published by the Washington Hospitality Association.  Want a hard copy of the whole manual?  It’s one of the many benefits of becoming a member!  Find out more about joining the Hospitality Association here.

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