Every year, emergency rooms see between 13,000 and 15,000 gasoline related injuries, according to the American Burn Association. The World Health Organization (WHO) also estimates that flammable liquids cause roughly 180,000 deaths per year. In addition, these leakages release toxins into the air, causing damage to the environment, the ozone layer, and public health.

You’ve also probably noticed that gas containers, or specifically, ‘safety cans’ come in a variety of colors, and while it may seem like an aesthetic option, each of those colors has a specific meaning. 

This guide uses the term ‘gas can’ in a general sense but for all intents and purposes, the information covered here is specifically relating to ‘safety cans’.  As stated in the Children's Gasoline Burn Prevention Act, gas cans for the general public are required to have a child safety mechanism. Safety cans have a different set of requirements.

Learn how each organization promotes the safe usage of flammable liquids, the meaning of the different colors, and how to handle each flammable liquid responsibly.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a regulatory body that governs how flammable equipment is handled on job sites. For example, they dictate regulations at warehouses, loading/unloading zones, shipyards, plants, and more. OSHA also regulates the storage of gas cans. The OSHA regulations are separated into two different sets: construction and general regulations. 

For general regulations, section 29 states, a “safety can shall mean an approved container, of not more than 5 gallons capacity, having a spring-closing lid and spout cover and so designed that it will safely relieve internal pressure when subjected to fire exposure.”

For construction regulations, gas cans must meet all of the above requirements and have a flash arrestor screen. This prevents the fuel from flowing in the opposite direction.

Department of Transportation

The U.S. Fire Administration found that "the misuse of a material or product, such as spilling flammable liquid or gas too close to the vehicle was the third leading factor contributing to the ignition of the fires (13 percent)."

Therefore, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) governs how you travel with gas. If you're driving with gas on the highway, your gas can must meet their regulatory requirements, regardless of whether you're using it for industrial or residential purposes. 

In addition to meeting OSHA standards, USDOT regulations require that gas cans must have caps with hold down brackets that can still vent under pressure to prevent gas from leaking while driving. Additionally, the nozzle should have a rugged handle drop protection, which prevents damaging the spout.

Environmental Protection Agency

When flammable liquids like gasoline are spilled, they evaporate and release carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides into the air along with other toxins. This damages the ozone layer and reduces air quality, making it both an environmental and public health concern. 

For those reasons, all gas cans must comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, no matter if you are traveling or just have gas in storage.  

Each container should emit no more than 0.3 grams per gallon per day of hydrocarbon emissions. Additionally, the EPA says the nozzle should automatically close when not in use. Gas cans should also only self vent when in use and should not have any other vents. 

Note that even if the gas complies with the EPA, it does not necessarily comply with the above two organizations. For that reason alone, make sure that your gas cans meet all requirements possible.

Now that you know the regulations, the following is what each color means.

The Difference Between Gas, Diesel, and Kerosene

While commonly referred to as "gas cans," gas is not the only thing portable fuel containers hold. Diesel and kerosene are the other two most common flammable liquids.

The difference among all three comes down to how many carbon atoms they contain. Gasoline has the least carbon atoms and it evaporates below the boiling point. Kerosene has more carbon atoms than gasoline, and diesel is the thickest of the three with the most carbon atoms.

Gasoline is generally used for cars and smaller vehicles, while diesel is used for trucks and heavier vehicles. Kerosene is used for lamps, furnaces and is even a component for jet fuel.

Gas Can Color Law Meaning

Every gas can is required to have an Underwriter's Laboratories (UL) or American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) stamp of approval. A UL stamp means that the can has been tested for strength and durability. The UL also tests that the nozzle can withstand up to 125 pounds and the handle up to 250 pounds. 

Therefore, in addition to the standard regulations, each flammable liquid must also abide by the gas can color law that states that each flammable liquid must be stored in a can color designated to that specific liquid. This helps avoid confusion, which could be potentially fatal, as the liquids have a similar appearance and texture.

The portable fuel container should also have the liquid's name (for example, "gasoline") engraved on the can in 34-point Arial

Many homeowners also have gasoline, kerosene, and diesel to power machines like lawnmowers. While both homeowners and industrial workers have to follow EAP and DOT guidelines, only industrial workers are governed by OSHA.

Red Gas Can: Gasoline

Gasoline is perhaps the most common residential flammable liquid and is always stored in a red gas can. It must follow the regulations mentioned above and should never be stored in milk jugs, glass containers, antifreeze jugs, or any other container that does not meet EAP or DOT requirements.

While hauling gasoline, secure it in your vehicle where it won't slip and unload it immediately when you arrive at your destination. Avoid storing it in a basement where it could ignite and burn your house. Instead, consider purchasing a flammable liquid storage cabinet.

Gasoline has a relatively short shelf life and should not be used if it is between 6-12 months old. If you plan to store the gasoline for more than a year, consider adding a fuel stabilizer, which can extend its shelf life by several years.

Blue Gas Can: Kerosene 

Kerosene is less volatile than the other gases listed here and is therefore stored in a blue can. This portable fuel container should also follow EPA guidelines and should hold no more than 5 gallons. It should also be labeled as "kerosene" in 34-point Arial.

Kerosene is among the easiest to store as it does not evaporate or freeze as gasoline would. Be sure to only put kerosene in a clean container as combining it with any dirt can make it think and unusable. If you're using kerosene for residential purposes, consider storing it in an outdoor shed rather than in an attached garage as it is still a flammable liquid.

Yellow Gas Can: Diesel 

Diesel is always stored in a yellow can and is also highly flammable. Users should also follow EAP, DOT, and, (if an industrial worker) OSHA guidelines. Diesel, like gasoline, has a 6-12 month lifespan and should be maintained properly to prolong its life. It should be stored at roughly 70 degrees and, ideally, should have no exposure to oxygen.

Oxidation is when diesel and oxygen molecules meet, and the oxygen eventually breaks down the diesel. Avoid storing it in your garage or house and elevate it on a surface above ground.

Water is also an enemy to diesel, and condensation on the diesel can will cause bacteria to grow and destroy the diesel fuel. Constantly monitor for condensation and use biocide additives to break down bacteria caused by water. Keeping the tank full will also help reduce water buildup.

Green Can: Oils

Green cans are designed to contain oils. By "oils," the law refers to any kind of mixed oils that are flammable. When storing these oils, follow basic safety precautions and store them outside of your home and away from anything that could ignite. Green oil cans should also be kept out of reach of children. 

Safety Spouts and Nozzles

In 2000, the government began placing regulations on the kinds of safety spouts, and nozzles manufacturers are allowed to make.

While exact laws vary from state to state, most states require the manufacturer to pass a durability test as well as a spill-proof test. The safety spout should also close automatically to avoid additional leakage when completing fueling. Additionally, OSHA states that the spout should “relieve internal pressure when subjected to fire exposure.”

When filling the gas can never place it on the bed of a pickup truck or any other elevated surface. Be sure to clean any spills that may occur immediately. 

When you arrive at your destination, unload the can and place it in a cool, dry place. Avoid storing it with other liquids that it could react with, and be sure to keep it out of reach of children. Never smoke or have an open flame anywhere near the gas can. Containers should also never be placed in front of doorways, stairways, or exit ways.

The Bottom Line

While regulatory bodies are doing their best to prevent environmental damage and injuries or fatalities, it's essential that each person takes responsibility for their own safety and handles flammable liquids with care. 

To learn more about safely handling flammable liquids, consult the websites for OSHA, EPA, and DOT.

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