By Safety Management Group

Nuclear AccidentLike fire, chemicals are very useful for a broad variety of functions. But just like fire, many chemicals are inherently hazardous or even deadly when they’re not used in a properly controlled manner, or when accidents occur. 

That’s an important fact to remember, because chemicals are used to some degree at nearly every workplace from industrial plants, to laboratories, to agriculture, to maintenance functions, and even in office environments. Whether chemicals are added as part of a production process, used to clean or lubricate equipment, or exist as the byproduct of some other action, they can pose a hazard to workers. Some are highly corrosive or toxic. Others are flammable, may oxidize quickly, or may react with other substances to create a deadly situation. 

When chemicals are stored or handled properly, the inherent risk is minimized. But if something goes wrong and a chemical is spilled, appropriate action must be taken immediately to prevent injury to workers and others, and to minimize the potential damage to other materials and facilities. In this article, we’ll review basic reactions to and planning for chemical spills. 

Prevention: the best solution 
It may seem obvious, but the best way to deal with a chemical spill is to avoid having one in the first place. The key is to follow proper procedures for storing, transferring, handling, using, and disposing of chemicals. All workers on a jobsite should be trained to recognize the hazards and proper procedures associated with every chemical they may encounter, including the actions they need to take when a spill occurs. They should also have access to the MSDS (material safety data sheet) for each chemical. 

Chemicals should be stored and transported properly, as noted in the MSDS. For example, some chemicals should not be exposed to excessive heat. Others must be stored in fireproof containers. Still others cannot be jostled while they are being moved. In addition, workers using the chemicals must wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimize the chance of injury, because even a small splash in the eyes can create a traumatic injury. 

If appropriate, the worksite should have materials for dealing with spills of the specific chemicals that are being used. That could be anything from a bag of absorbent material and paper towels to an elaborate kit with special cleaning equipment and PPE. Instructions for dealing with a spill should be easily accessible and highly visible. 

How dangerous is a spill? 
There is no simple answer to that question, because the hazard level depends on a variety of factors. Beyond the properties of the actual material itself, the degree of hazard may also depend on just how much material was spilled, where the spill occurred and what surface received the spill, the amount of ventilation in the area, and the temperature of the surface, immediate area, and the chemical itself. Depending on the specific hazards involved, it may be necessary to evacuate the area or to take steps to prevent against environmental damage. 

Generally speaking, though, regardless of the level of hazard involved, there are four basic steps involved with dealing with spills. While the specific actions related to each step may vary, as may the people responsible for handling each step, they form the basis of a spill response. 

1. Communicate the hazard 
Immediately notify others working in the area and any supervisory personnel of the hazard, and if the situation warrants it, evacuate the area. If needed, call 911 or follow the established emergency procedures to call for help. Be sure to tell the dispatcher which material that was spilled and the quantity, so that first responders will be ready to address the situation. It’s an excellent idea to have someone who is familiar with the incident and the layout of the worksite remain on the scene to assist the first responders, assuming that it is safe to do so. 

Make sure that anyone who is injured or has been contaminated is removed from the immediate area and taken to a safe place. If appropriate, flush contaminated areas with water while waiting for medical personnel to arrive. This underscores the importance of workers knowing the proper steps to take for each chemical they work with. 

2. Control the spill
This step focuses on ensuring that the spill does not become any worse. If there is a way to stop the spill or minimize the chances of it becoming worse, take those actions (such as closing a valve or righting a container that has tipped over). Workers should immediately don appropriate PPE for the chemical and the nature of the hazard. In some cases, that will include proper respiratory protection. 

If possible (and appropriate), shut down any potential sources of heat or ignition. Increase ventilation to the area if that will safely disperse any fumes. If the fumes present a hazard of their own, it’s usually better to isolate the area by closing doors and windows after the workplace has been evacuated. 

3. Contain the hazard 
Once the immediate situation has been addressed, take steps to keep the spill from spreading to other areas or contaminating adjacent surfaces. Depending on the material and situation, this usually involves confining the spilled material to a small area by using some type of absorbent material or neutralizer. Start spreading those materials around the perimeter of the spill to prevent it from expanding, and work your way to center. 

You’ll want to prevent the spill from spreading to floor drains or other places that may allow the material to flow into environmentally sensitive areas. You may need to build a dike to block or direct the material, or use a special product such as a spill sock. 

If you have to leave the area during this process, be sure to block access to the spilled material with caution tape or some other method that will prevent others from coming in contact with it. 

4. Clean up the spill and any damage
Collect the material used to contain or neutralize the spill, and dispose of it in the specified manner. If the spill is small, that may be a plastic bag, while larger spills may require plastic pails or drums. In some cases, you’ll also need to dispose of any equipment such as brooms or dustpans that you used to clean up the material. If what you’ve gathered qualifies as a hazardous material, be sure to label it accordingly and dispose of it as specified by local laws and environmental regulations. 

Clean the surfaces that were affected by the spill with the correct material, whether that’s bleach, a mild detergent, water, or some other material appropriate for the material that was spilled. Instead of rinsing the area after cleaning, you may need to use another method such as more absorbent material. 

Be sure to wash your hands and any other areas that may have come in contact with the materials thoroughly. If your clothing can be safely decontaminated and cleaned, follow the appropriate steps. Otherwise, dispose of the clothing following proper safety procedures. 

Your spill plan 
Your company’s safety plan should address chemicals that are used on your worksites and what should be done in the event of a spill. How that plan is structured depends both on the specific chemicals that are being used and how workers may come in contact with them. 

At the very least, your plan should reflect the information in the MSDS, and you should be certain that you have the correct PPE and spill control materials on hand. Training is another critical aspect of a sound spill response plan. 

Your plan should include a list of everyone who needs to be contacted, based on the nature and severity of the spill. It should offer clear guidance on whether evacuations are necessary, and if so, how those evacuations should be handled and where employees should go. In addition to detailed instructions about proper containment, cleanup, and disposal of spilled materials and equipment, it should explain how to safely decontaminate the surfaces where the spill occurred. 

By developing a thorough plan and using ongoing training to ensure that employees understand what to do and are ready to respond, you’ll be able to minimize the potential danger posed by chemical spills.