Posted On: May 8, 2023

How to Prevent Workplace Chemical Spills and Leaks

In the world of industrial chemicals, spills aren't just a childhood oopsie. The East Palestine, OH, train derailment – and all the recent chemical spills and near misses that have fallen into the resulting spotlight – have certainly reminded us of that.

Even though chemical leakage disasters are rare, the general public is scared and scrambling for ways to protect themselves.

You may already have compliance plans in place for preventing chemical spills in the workplace, but in a moment where hazardous spills are in the public consciousness, you want to avoid any possibility of bad press from an incident.

That’s why in this blog, we will cover the importance of identifying and eliminating spill hazards, reviewing your plan for cleaning up chemical spills, and drilling spill response steps so that you're ready if the worst occurs. 

What Is a Chemical Spill and How Serious Is It?

A chemical spill is any uncontrolled release of any quantity of hazardous chemical, whether it's a solid, liquid, or gas.

Chemical leakage risks vary based on a combination of the amount and type of chemical involved. A small spill is not necessarily a low-risk spill. For example, chemicals that are flammable or corrosive can be a serious threat even in very small quantities. The presence of incompatible materials or conditions will also contribute to chemical leakage risks.

What Should You Do If You Suspect Spillage Has Occurred?

The response to spillage of a hazardous chemical will depend on whether a trained employee classifies the spill as incidental or emergency.

Incidental spills – those without any potential emergency consequences – can be cleaned up by employees who are familiar with the chemical's hazards because incidental spills aren't covered by OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard.  

To be considered incidental, a spill must involve:

  • A hazardous but identified chemical
  • A known and limited quantity that doesn't pose a significant safety or health hazard
  • Limited exposure potential
  • An absence of conditions that could make the spill immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) like limited ventilation

Anything else – like spills that may result in high levels of exposure to toxic substances or cause IDLH conditions – is considered an emergency spill and must be handled according to HAZWOPER emergency procedures.

Cleaning up emergency spills will start with the mandatory evacuation of all personnel except those trained in HAZWOPER response.

How to Prevent Toxic Spills

If you handle hazardous substances, your number one priority should be preventing any chemical spills by eliminating spill hazards.

That means storage and transportation precautions like:

  • Storing containers on secure shelving with a raised lip
  • Keep chemicals at or below eye level
  • Keep chemicals in a covered area to avoid direct sun or rain exposure
  • Avoid storing too many hazardous chemicals in one area
  • Regularly inspect containers for leaks or deterioration
  • Transport chemicals on carts suitable for the weight involved
  • Carrying glass containers in a bottle carrier
  • Using a functioning drum cart to move containers with 55 gallons or above
  • Strapping large gas cylinders into special handcarts for transportation

Obviously, spills are most likely to occur when they're in active use – or when they're being transferred from one container to another. Strict safety precautions should be employed during these moments like:

  • Avoiding manual pouring by using pumps or other mechanical transfer methods
  • Using funnels and containment trays to prevent or limit chemical leaks
  • Ensuring that the receiving container has an adequate capacity
  • Using approved safety containers for flammable or combustible liquids
  • Grounding the drum and the receiving container when transferring a flammable liquid
  • Preventing inhalation using ventilation, fume hoods, and/or respirators
  • Preventing accidental ingestion by encouraging handwashing, requiring hand protection, and banning food and drink from work areas with hazardous chemicals
  • Preventing eye exposure by requiring safety glasses or goggles
  • Preventing exposure through the skin with PPE like gowns, protective sleeves, and coveralls

How to Be Ready for a Quick Response

Even with the best laid plans, the worst can happen…which is why you need a spill response plan even if your prevention game is strong.

You can set yourself up for success by:

  • Placing spill kits near where hazardous chemicals are stored and used
  • Using equipment that limits and contains spillage like spill pallets and chemical bunds
  • Maintaining and periodically testing alarm systems
  • Keeping eyewashes and chemical showers freely available for use
  • Preparing emergency response plans for various chemical spill scenarios
  • Training personnel in chemical spill response and drilling spill response steps

Spill Response Steps: What Do You Do If Spillage Occurs?

If the worst should occur, here are 7 typical steps to a spill response:

  1. Assess the Spill and the Environment

Is this an incidental spill, or something worse?

  1. Protect Yourself and Those Around You

This includes "sounding the alarm" in a manner appropriate to the nature of the spill (from a verbal warning of an incidental spill to triggering a full-blown evacuation if necessary). It also includes choosing Personal Protective Equipment. (PPE).

  1. Confine the Spill

You want to protect drains into the general water supply and limit the spill area by blocking and diverting any flow. Depending on the nature of the spill, Steps 3 and 4 may occur at the same time or in reverse order.

  1. Stop the Spill From the Source

This may be as simple as turning a valve or putting a container upright, but spill response kits should also have products to plug holes or ruptures.

  1. Evaluate and Implement Cleanup

Once the spill is contained and the source is eliminated, you have a moment to consider the best supplies for cleanup and whether you have enough on hand. Make a plan and get to work.

  1. Decontaminate

Consider the hazardous materials and potential contamination of media, personnel, equipment, and the site in general. Decontaminate what you can and dispose of what you can't in a safe and effective manner.

  1. Report

Complete the necessary spill notification reports required by local, national, and organizational guidelines. This typically includes medical reports, EPA reports, company safety reports, and other paperwork.

The Role of Training in Spill Prevention & Cleanup

Do you still have hundreds of unanswered questions on your mind? That's because spill response is a complex topic that requires in-depth training and planning. A well-trained workforce is the key to EPA compliance, spill prevention, and the cleanup of any uncontrolled releases that may occur.

Fortunately, our training covers everything you need to know for workplace spills.

We've been a compliance training provider for over 20 years, and our online courses are self-paced and mobile-friendly. We offer courses that can help you satisfy EPA, OSHA, HAZWOPER, UST, and other regulatory requirements.

Check out our catalog of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) training courses and get started today!

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