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How to Prepare for Chemical Spills in the Workplace

By Daniel Clark | Last updated: September 10, 2021
Key Takeaways

With the right preparations in place, most chemical spills can be minor occurrences rather than serious incidents.

Caption: Chemical storage facility Source: industryview / iStock

When working with hazardous chemicals, preparation is key. The old mitigation strategy of "just throw some sawdust on it" doesn't cut it - although spill response is often a version of that.

To be properly prepared, employers need to assess the kinds of spills that are possible on their sites and what the consequences of those spills might be.

Incidental Chemical Spills

OSHA allows for what it calls "incidental spill," which it defines as:

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a release of a hazardous substance which does not pose a significant safety or health hazard to employees in the immediate vicinity or to the worker cleaning it up, nor does it have the potential to become an emergency.

It is incumbent on both the worker and employer to ensure they understand this, and also know the thresholds that pertain to the specific material in use.

Safety Data Sheets

When completing a hazard assessment for a specific task involving the use of chemicals, workers should take a look at the specific hazards posed by that particular chemical. It’s way too late to be thinking “what do we do” as some fugitive substance is freely running down a storm drain or slithering towards the welding area.

Fortunately, the work has already been done to establish the hazards common chemicals pose to humans and the environment, their physical characteristics, flammability, reactivity, as well as spill response and handling guidelines. These are all found in the Safety Data Sheets (formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets) for each product.

Each Safety Data Sheet consists of sixteen sections that break down everything a worker needs to know about the chemicals they work with or around. This includes ecological hazards, disposal considerations, exposure controls, physical properties, toxicological information, firefighting information, and other details germane to the spill response of a particular product.

This information is invaluable. If a chemical is on the worksite, so should its SDS.

WHMIS, GHS, and HAZWOPER

Having the SDS on site is important, but just leaving it in a binder isn't enough. Workers also need to know how to read and understand these documents and put the proper controls in place.

To that end, most workplaces (and many legislative jurisdictions) have implemented mandatory WHMIS/GHS training.

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WHMIS stands for “Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System” and is used in Canada. But as of 2015, it has been aligned with the GHS or “Global Harmonized System.” These systems give information about how materials can be safely stored, used, and disposed using familiar standardized pictograms and wording so that the same materials will be handled in a consistent manner across all industries.

(Learn about Health and Safety Symbols and Their Meanings)

Workers handling potentially hazardous materials should be aware of the generic aspects of material handling such as how to find information on an SDS, but also the site-specific aspects. If a particular resource is needed, or a particular responsibility exists for handling substances, the worker needs to know this before they are allowed to perform those tasks. One effective way to ensure that workers review the requirements for working safely is to have them perform a risk assessment before the task begins.

The risk assessment related to working with specific chemicals will also indicate whether a spill will require an emergency response from a HAZWOPER-trained team. Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response teams have specialized training to respond to spills that may be particularly toxic, reactive, or otherwise hazardous. Beyond the “incidental” threshold, spills may require the use of such a team.

(Learn more in HAZWOPER: A Primer)

Spill Response Measures

Even when all the proper precautions have been taken, spills can still happen. When they do, the hope is that the preparation can also help to mitigate the potential damage:

  • Supplies are on hand
  • Adequate PPE is available to everyone and donned properly
  • Alarm systems are in place and tested
  • Emergency procedures have been established
  • Workers have been trained

When everyone knows what to do and has clear procedures to follow, many spills can be relatively mundane occurrences.

When a spill takes place, spill response procedures will follow four basic steps:

  1. Sound the alarm: Response requirements will vary, but some materials could require an evacuation if there is a loss of containment. This may be as simple as verbal notification to vacate the immediate area or request help with the subsequent steps.
  2. Control and stop the spill: Local ordinances and regulations usually prohibit anything going down drains other than water, so spilled material should be stopped before this can happen if possible. Floor drains can be blocked using a dike or other suitable method to keep material from entering, and depending on the probability of a spill this might’ve been done before the task even started.
  3. Limit the spread and mitigate the damage: People and materials should be cleared from the immediate area, and the spread can often be controlled by spreading neutral, absorbent material around the periphery of the spill area and working towards the center. Proper PPE must be worn to prevent exposure (depending on the substance in question).
  4. Cleanup: The SDS will give appropriate guidelines for how to clean up and dispose of the particular material safely. Where possible, substances can be neutralized so that the resulting product is less hazardous to work with.

Conduct Spill Response Drills

As with any emergency response plan, practice makes perfect. Conducting mock spill response drills helps put the muscle memory in place so workers aren’t scrambling when the real thing happens.

It is generally appropriate to run these drill or tabletop activities at least once a year and to address any deficiencies found during the drill. This helps ensure that everything is in place both procedurally and physically to mitigate the consequences of a spill. That way, everyone will know their role and perform it without hesitation.

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Written by Daniel Clark

Profile Picture of Daniel Clark

Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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