Act Quickly … and Safely … When a Chemical Spill Occurs

The old saying “don’t cry over spilled milk” applies to hazardous chemical spills, too. So don’t cry. Instead, says our Safety Training Tips editor, take these steps, and take them quickly and carefully! Health and lives could be in the balance.

Put simply, a major spill can be catastrophic.

Released in large quantities, hazardous chemicals not only place your employees at risk but can also pollute the air and water. The fires and explosions that can accompany a major spill can damage or destroy your facility and nearby homes and businesses. Even minor spills and leaks can result in employee exposures and pollution problems. Because of the danger, it’s essential for employees who work with hazardous chemicals to be trained to take all spills and leaks—even very small ones—extremely seriously.

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Make sure spills are promptly reported. All employees should be trained to report spills (and even small leaks) immediately to your designated emergency coordinator.

Employees reporting a spill should be prepared to explain:

    •     What is leaking or spilled
    •     Where the spill is
    •     The size of the spill
    •     The rate of flow

The emergency coordinator will then tell the employee reporting the problem whether it is safe to clean it up (for very small spills of relatively safe-to-handle substances) or whether the employee should evacuate the area and leave the containment and cleanup to a specially trained response team. In the event of a large spill, the emergency coordinator will notify state, federal, and local authorities and fire and police departments or other specialists who might be needed.  Doing so is not only advisable, it’s often the law.

Prepare emergency response teams to contain spills quickly and effectively. The spill team, composed of well-trained employees who know how to contain chemical spills, will consult the MSDS for the chemical to be sure that they understand what hazards they face, what PPE they must use, and what steps they need to take to contain the spill.

The sooner containment starts, the better. This activity has several steps that happen quickly and often overlap:

    •     Stop the source of the leak. Close valves, pumps, or whatever may be allowing the material out.
    •     Cover drains or other possible escape routes into the environment.
    •     Patch holes with patch kits, valve pluggers, or whatever is needed.
    •     Contain the spill by the best method. This might be:
          —Building a dike to keep spilled liquid from getting into water
          —Repairing the container or putting it in another container that won’t leak
          —Channeling the spill to a place where it won’t spread, by diking, pumping, or   opening a trench to a secure spot
          —Placing an empty container under the leak
          —Rotating or shifting the container’s position to stop the leak

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Ensure safe cleanups after spills are contained. Once the spill has been contained, the cleanup crew moves in with absorbent materials to soak up or solidify the spill. Used cleanup materials must go directly into EPA-approved containers for disposal. Protective clothing, PPE, tools and equipment used in the containment and cleanup effort, and any other materials that might have come into contact with hazardous chemicals, must also be deposited in appropriate containers for decontamination or disposed of in EPA-approved containers.

It’s also vital to prevent contaminated materials from spreading chemicals into clean areas of your facility or into the surrounding community and employees’ homes. With some chemicals, just the amount that sticks to the soles of the shoes could contaminate an entire water supply. And don’t forget to check on employee exposures. Any employee who believes he or she has been exposed to a toxic chemical should have a medical examination as soon as possible after the exposure.

Why It Matters…

Chemical spills have the potential to cause:

    •     Fires
    •     Explosions
    •     Reactions with other chemicals or with air or water
    •     Air and water pollution
    •     Serious– even lethal—health effects for employees and others exposed


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