Hazardous Chemical Cleanup: Steps for Dealing with a Spill

Despite your best efforts to avoid employee exposure to hazardous chemicals, if your company uses chemicals, it will likely experience a spill occasionally. According to OSHA estimates, 650,000 chemical products exist and 32 million workers may be exposed to chemical hazards. Because of the prevalence of chemicals in the workplace, spills happen and need to be dealt with effectively.

The best way to deal with spill cleanup is to provide comprehensive emergency response training ahead of time so employees feel confident carrying out procedures when the need arises. Reinforce these procedures regularly with follow-up training and signs throughout the workplace. When a spill happens, though, it’s easy to feel flustered and forget key steps. To help make the cleanup process easier, this article will lay out simple steps to follow, as well as an example of how a specific cleanup would work.

Chemical Spill Response Process

Different types of chemicals will require slightly different procedures, as will the size of a spill. The circumstances and type of spill may mean specific, extra actions are required to handle the situation. (To find this information, personnel should consult the substance’s safety data sheet (SDS).) The following general steps, however, should help keep employees safe.

1. Assess and Communicate

Employees in the immediate area of the spill should survey the situation, using emergency protocol to determine whether the spill is dangerous and whether the quantity of the spill is manageable. Employees working with a hazardous chemical should be familiar with the chemical’s properties (which are listed on its label and SDS) and know whether an immediate threat is posed to the health and safety of people in the area. For example, a small spill of a chemical that poses no immediate danger—such as a fire or toxic fumes—is considered an incidental spill, and employees can follow your company’s standard cleanup procedures. A larger spill that poses an immediate threat or is too large to easily contain with a cleanup kit will require a bigger response such as alerting fire and medical personnel or bringing in a specially trained cleanup crew.

In the case of any spill, workers should alert others in the area so they can evacuate or stay clear of the incident. Employees should also contact your facility’s emergency response coordinator or manager. Clear communication right away will ensure everyone is safe and secure.

During this step, employees should make sure to stay clear of the spilled substance, as stepping in it could lead to slipping and falling or to unsafe exposure to the chemical.

Let’s consider a specific example: Oil is a common chemical spilled in the workplace since it’s used in many types of machinery. If a couple gallons of oil spill at your workplace, they need to be cleaned up right away. This can probably be done fairly easily by employees who are properly trained and have access to the necessary protective gear. Employees involved in the spill should notify others in the area right away, though, since oil is flammable.

2. Prepare

Getting ready to clean up a chemical spill requires two types of preparation. First, prepare the area by ensuring proper ventilation is available. This is especially important, for example, if the location of the spill is a confined space.

Once the area is safe, those responsible for cleaning up the spill should get one of your company’s spill kits. (Be sure to have spill kits on hand at all times and in sizes appropriate for incidents that may occur at your facility.) Then responding employees should put on any necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), which may include goggles, gloves, a lab coat or protective suit, and even respiratory protection. Whether a respiratory device is needed will depend on what chemical was spilled and in what quantity. A chemical’s SDS should describe what types of PPE are required for cleanup, but if an employee has any doubts, using more PPE is better than less.

Example: If we consider our example of a couple gallons of spilled oil, a few precautionary steps would be necessary to prepare for cleanup. Employees would need to ensure proper ventilation is available since oil is flammable and the fumes can pose a threat to people. Those cleaning up the mess would need protective gear like gloves, and shoes with treads could also help to prevent falls.

3. Stop and Contain

Ideally, the previous two steps should be done very quickly so the spill itself can be handled as rapidly as possible. Once prepared, the person responding to the spill should stop the flow of the liquid. If a container fell over and spilled a chemical, this is as simple as setting the container upright. If a container was punctured or is leaking, the responder can put a cap or putty over the opening or place a clean container underneath the leak. This simple step will ensure the spill is as small as possible and doesn’t impact other areas in your facility.

Next, use absorbents from the spill kit such as pads, socks and pillows. In the case of some chemicals, a neutralizing acid or base powder may be used, too. Personnel should begin by placing the absorbent socks around the edges of the spill to create a dike, but not too close to the chemical. If liquid is flowing rapidly, placing these absorbers too close to the flow might mean they cannot contain the spill. Once the liquid is contained, the rest of the chemical should be covered with absorbent pads.

Finally, all of the chemicals should be soaked up using the appropriate absorbent contents in the spill kit. Use the brushes, scoops or dustpans provided in your spill kit to collect the materials.

Example: If the oil is spilling from a drum or other container, employees should quickly turn it upright. Any leaks in the container should be plugged or an additional container should be placed under the leak. A spill kit containing absorbents that can handle oil should be used to dike and soak up the liquid (many spill kits should be able to soak up oil). Take care not to step in the oil.

4. Clean Up

After the spill is soaked up, it’s time to dispose of this waste properly. Pads that have soaked up chemicals cannot just be thrown in the trash, as some of them may pose problems when mixed with other substances. Your facility may require that hazardous waste be placed in specific bags or containers. It’s also possible to use a spill kit’s bucket to contain the chemicals. In either case, put a hazardous waste label on the container and dispose of it through the appropriate channels established at your company.

Once the waste has been disposed of, the spill area should be cleaned using soap and water to remove any chemical residues. Doing so will help make it safe for other employees to return to work.

Finally, anyone who helped clean up the spill should clean themselves. These people should rinse any protective gear that has touched the chemical with soap and water or dispose of it in a sealed container. They should remove any clothing that may have been exposed to the chemical spill, too. Then everyone should wash their hands, arms and any other exposed skin.

Example: Oil that’s been absorbed by pads is still flammable and can potentially self ignite when placed in a closed trash receptacle. Therefore, workers need to take care to dispose of oil in the proper containers and follow company protocol for how it should be removed from the worksite. As with any chemical cleanup, those involved should sufficiently clean gear and skin.

5. Report

Once the spill is cleaned up and everything is back under control, it’s time to document what happened and report the spill to any necessary agencies. Your company may have specific procedures for recording the event internally. Which external agencies you need to notify will depend on the type of spill.

For example, if any of the chemical reached storm drains before the spill could be contained, you should notify your local utilities provider. Having chemicals enter local waterways can be dangerous to people and the environment.

If the amount of a chemical released exceeds the reportable quantity (as determined by the EPA), the spill will need to be reported to the National Response Center.

In the case of a major spill, you may also need to notify OSHA. This is only the case, though, if three or more employees are hospitalized as a result of the spill.

For most chemicals you will need to look up the reportable value to determine whether any notification outside of your company is required. For some chemicals the reportable value is as little as a pound, while for other chemicals the reportable valuable is thousands of pounds. In many cases, though, spilling a few gallons of a chemical may not require extensive reporting.

Example: Assuming your small oil spill did not reach any storm drains or waterways, you will not need to contact the local and national authorities. If the spill had been larger, posed more of a threat to people or potentially harmed the environment, the local utilities, EPA or OSHA may have required notification. Whenever oil is spilled near a waterway, the NRC will also need to be notified.

Other Considerations

  • Dealing with Chemical Exposure: If an employee touches the spilled chemical, it’s important to deal with this immediately. Any skin that comes into contact with the chemical should be flushed with water for at least 15 minutes. If chemicals get into someone’s eyes, flush the eyes at the emergency eyewash station for 15 minutes. It’s important employees know to take these steps to prevent long-term harm. If after flushing the exposed area the employee still experiences pain or irritation, seek further medical attention.
  • Protecting Drains: When a chemical spills near a storm drain, take precautions to prevent it from entering the drain. You can do this by lifting the drain’s grate and placing a plastic bag or tarp flat over the opening; then return the grate. You can also use a dike near the spill to redirect the flow of liquid away from the drain.
  • Chemicals Requiring Special Procedures: Certain hazardous substances require extra steps not listed above. For example, in the case of a mercury spill, you’ll need to use a special suction device to collect mercury beads (it’s not safe to use a vacuum cleaner!). For these types of chemicals, always consult the pertinent SDS.
  • Choosing Spill Kits: Depending on the amount of each hazardous chemical your facility uses, you will want to select appropriately sized spill kits. Kits come in sizes ranging from 5 gallons to 95 gallons to help cover any spill. You may also find guides for choosing and using spill kits helpful.

Additional Resources