Spill Containment and Absorbents – HazMat Cleanup In A Nutshell

Spill Containment and Absorbents – HazMat Cleanup In A Nutshell

If you’ve been following the news the past few days, you may have seen that BP had a bit of a mishap at one of their factories, where a process malfunctioned and dumped crude oil into Lake Michigan for about two hours. This, of course, coming not long after sanctions were lifted following their highly-publicized 2010 debacle in which one of their deep sea oil rigs exploded, leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. Yikes. Truthfully, you’re unlikely to face any kind of hazardous spill on this scale in most businesses, but the public outrage, environmental damage, and overall headache for BP should give employers a reason to seriously evaluate their spill containment protocols and the spill absorbents they have on hand. It is important to note that eleven people also lost their lives in the 2010 incident; while these deaths were more related to the ensuing explosion than the oil itself, keep in mind that worker safety and loss of life are very real risks in hazardous spillage situations.

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The Components of a Good Spill Containment Program

As far as OSHA, the EPA, and other (more local) enforcement bodies are concerned, there isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to spill containment. All businesses using any kind of hazardous materials, be they corrosive, radioactive, or just general pollutants, must have a detailed and specific plan in place for all stages of the cleanup of a spill event. Let’s take a look at what some of these details actually are:

Containers: Outlining which containers you will use during cleanup (like these spill kit containers) is important because they must be specific to the types of materials being handled. Standards are set forth for how various chemicals and substances need to be stored, so your cleanup bins need to also meet these requirements – certain materials might need airtight seals, others might require special bins made out of a material than can’t be corroded or leaked from, etc.

Absorbents: Absorbents need to also be appropriate for not only the type of substances being used, but also the volume. Having enough appropriate absorbent material on hand should be calculated carefully. Absorbents (such as this) also make up your “secondary” containment system, or the fallback you go to when something goes wrong and the original containers or machinery for a substance leak or spill.

Training: Employees need to know exactly what to do when an incident occurs; deploying secondary containment systems in a timely manner is a huge part of containing the damage of any spill event. In addition to how to use your absorbents, workers need to know exactly where they will be placed. In most businesses, this means being aware of drainage grates that lead to public sewers, and any paths that would take a spilling material into a public space (down/into a street, etc.). Also, nearby property needs to be carefully considered – leaking toxic waste into your neighbor’s lot could quickly become a financial nightmare. All employees trained in your program make up your “HazMat” team, and should be regularly refreshed on their training and response procedures.

Overarching Effectiveness: An important element to a plan is that it is equipped to handle all possible waste spillages at your site. The plan should not just be in place to satisfy OSHA requirements, it should be the exact steps you use to contain and clean things in an emergency. If there are additional steps you would take, or more effective alternatives, modify your plan to include them: Do not cut corners.

Worker Safety In HazMat Emergencies

If TV shows are anything to go by, HazMat suits are basically only worn by a faceless squad of highly-trained government employees when a nuclear bomb goes off. In reality, as previously mentioned, these teams are comprised of your highly trained workers. As such, the equipment they wear should be reflective of the seriousness of their job. Workers need to be careful to protect themselves from any harmful exposure in a spill event. This generally includes full body suits, with a minimum of the expected touching surfaces, such as hands and feet, being covered. Breathing is also a huge concern with any hazardous substance, usually necessitating respiration filters (face masks) for those involved. All equipment needs to be on hand, in an easily accessible location, and integrated into your safety plan long before an event occurs.

Even with equipment, it is required that all members of your HazMat team are informed of their potential exposure levels and the consequences thereof. According to OSHA

Informational programs. Employers shall develop and implement a program which is part of the employer’s safety and health program required in paragraph (b) of this section to inform employees, contractors, and subcontractors (or their representative) actually engaged in hazardous waste operations of the nature, level and degree of exposure likely as a result of participation in such hazardous waste operations.

OSHA - Hazardous waste operations and emergency response

Absorbent Materials

Absorbents come in many forms, with some being more effective in certain situations than others. Common types of commercially available absorbents include:

  • Pads and rolls
  • Pillows
  • Mats and rugs
  • Marine absorbents, which float and contain floating substances, such as oil
  • Granular absorbents


Each has its pros and cons, and you should do research to find out which is best suited for the types of materials your business handles. In fact, customization of your containers and absorbents is one of the biggest points that OSHA and the EPA drive home constantly. In formulating your response plan, always make sure that your measures and safety/containment materials are not only high quality, but that they are also well suited to you and your workers. Do this, and you’ll be, quite literally, covered.

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