Going Up in Flames

Risks Associated with Cooking Oil Residue

A recent significant fire loss resulted from the spontaneous combustion of terry cloth towels used in a hotel restaurant. The towels had been used to clean up cooking oil in the kitchen and prep area. The rags were laundered frequently in the hotel facility, immediately folded, stacked and then stored in the restaurant for future use. During inspection, it was determined that the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion resulting from the residual oil left in the warm towels after laundering.

Extent of the Damage

The fire caused damage to the building structure, restaurant equipment, rooftop HVAC units, and there was smoke damage to adjacent conference rooms, equipment, and built-in coolers.

Lessons Learned

Unfortunately, this example is not uncommon. Several other recent fire events determined to be the result of improperly stored or cleaned oily/greasy towels and rags used in restaurants or other cooking facilities. These examples serve as good reminders about the need for proper handling and storage of all oil soaked rags. The risks associated with towels and rags used for cleaning motor oils, solvents, and oil based paints are more commonly considered when evaluating their potential for combustion; towels used for cleaning of cooking oils, both vegetable and animal, present similar risks and potential loss and are often overlooked.

Reading Smoke Signals

A study done by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found towels containing as low as 3 percent residue of vegetable cooking oil after normal convention laundering could still generate spontaneous combustion. Do your part and prevent an occurrence from taking place.

  • Take care with using, cleaning, and storing of towels and rags contaminated with cooking oil residues. When you have rags that have been used with cooking oils, be sure to consider them to be as volatile as those soaked with solvents.
  • Towels and rags should be stored only in non-combustible containers with closed lids.
  • Storage of soiled towels and rags in laundry hampers or plastic containers should be discouraged.
  • Laundering or otherwise cleaning of oily towels should include a pre-soak to remove as much of the oily debris as possible. Towels taken from the dryer should be inspected for leftover residue and allowed to cool prior to folding and storage.
  • An outside cleaning service, used by repair garages for cleaning oily rags, can provide the safest method for cleaning or disposal of grease filled, oily towels and rags.

Collette Versoza, Liberty Northwest


Collette Versoza – Collette.Versoza@Liberty Northwest.com

About Liberty Northwest

Liberty Northwest is the Northwest's largest private workers' compensation insurer and is a leading property and casualty company. Since 1983, Liberty Northwest has partnered with Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association (ORLA) to provide members with insurance programs tailored to the hospitality industry's needs. Today, ORLA-endorsed programs cover more than 1,000 ORLA members and have saved participants over $90 million in insurance costs. Contact your independent insurance agent or call Liberty Northwest at 800-463-6381 and see how Liberty Northwest can help your business.