How to Handle Chemical Spills
Oil Spill Clean Up Klein C

You may think of laboratories as places of organization and orderliness, but sometimes accidents happen. Chemical spills occur when someone or some event causes chemicals to escape their confines. 

Employing a proper chemical spill response can make these accidents mere nuisances. An improper chemical spill procedure can, at best, disrupt work and, at worst, harm you and your fellow workers. 

You must know how to clean chemical spills safely. Luckily, we have an extensive list of chemical spill clean-up tips.

Keep reading to learn about minor vs. major spills, proper chemical spill PPE, and proper chemical spill procedure.

What is a Chemical Spill?

A chemical spill is the unchecked release of unsafe chemicals. But don’t be fooled by the term “spill.” Chemical spills aren’t just the release of liquid substances across the lab floor. 

A spill can consist of solid or gaseous substances also. For example, Benzene’s physical state is liquid, and it can cause weakened immune systems and bone marrow damage. 

But pesticides come in liquid, solid, and gaseous forms. An accidental release of pesticides can result in respiratory issues, asthma, rashes, blindness, and cancer. 

Think of it like this: chemical spills happen when hazardous chemicals – of any form – gain exposure outside of a safe, laboratory, or commercial situation. 

Classifying Chemical Spills: Minor vs. Major Spills

There are two classifications of chemical spills: simple and complicated. Another way to look at it is “minor vs. major spills.” Simple or minor spills are small, confined, and not too dangerous. 

Simple spills don’t take much effort to clean, neutralize, or absorb. Minor spills are often easy for laboratory workers to handle by themselves. Complicated or major spills take more effort to clean. 

There are a few other ways you can identify a simple spill:

  • You know who’s responsible for the spill
    • The responsible person is at the scene
  • You know what the spilled chemical was
  • The spill isn’t somewhere easily accessible
  • The chemical isn’t highly toxic, flammable, corrosive, or reactive
  • Medical attention isn’t required
  • Onsite or local personnel can handle the spill

Firstly, you need to identify a chemical spill as complicated before tackling the issue. Here is a checklist you can use to determine the severity of the chemical spill:

  • Do you know what the chemical is?
  • Is there more than one chemical involved? 
  • Is the substance highly corrosive, toxic, flammable, or reactive? 
  • Did the spill happen in a public area like a hallway or entryway?
  • Is it possible the spill could spread through the building?
    • Could it spread through the ventilation system?
  • Are you having trouble deciding how to clean the chemical spill? 
  • Is medical attention required?
  • Are you having issues identifying who caused the spill?
  • Is onsite or local personnel incapable of handling the spill?

A positive answer to any of these questions means you have a complicated spill. Truthfully, there’s not much you can do about a major chemical spill. 

How to Handle a Major Chemical Spill

Let us reiterate – you can’t do much about a significant chemical spill, not alone or with your onsite team, anyway. The first step you should take is to evacuate the immediate area and notify your supervisor. 

The next step is to contact the emergency response personnel. They are highly trained individuals with the knowledge to handle major chemical spills.

You and everyone else must wait in a safe location for the response team to arrive. It’s important to keep unauthorized people away from the chemical spill and immediate area.

Pull the fire alarm to evacuate the building if the spill is exceedingly dangerous and presents an immediate danger. 

Pulling the fire alarm may seem like an overreaction, but having everyone leave the building promptly is better than the risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals. 

Preparing Personal Protective Equipment

You probably know that most jobs require personal protective equipment for safe performance. Well, you need PPE for chemical spills as well. There are four questions you should ask when choosing PPE for chemical spills. 

  • What chemical and concentration will contact the PPE?
  • How long is the PPE going to be exposed to this chemical?
  • What is the exposure level of the chemical? 
    • Is the chemical a mist, drench, spray, etc.?
  • What body parts will have the most exposure to the chemical?

The PPE you use will need to accommodate your specific situation. So don’t expect the same PPE for every chemical spill.

For example, specific chemical spills may require safety glasses or goggles to protect your eyes from splashes, debris, or particles. Respirators will keep you from inhaling toxic or corrosive fumes and particulates. 

Hand protection (gloves) will inhibit direct contact with the chemical. But you must make sure the gloves are compatible with the substance. Chemical compatibility is measured by permeation and degradation. 

Permeation measures how long it takes for the chemical to soak through the glove. Degradation is the amount of time the substance takes to break down the glove physically. 

Handling Different Types of Spills

There are nine general types of chemical spills. Each classification has a chemical spill procedure you must follow to resolve the issue safely. Read on to determine how to handle each type of chemical spill. 

1. Low or No-Risk Spills

The first type of chemical spill is “Low or no risk.” Low or no-risk chemical spills are precisely that – they pose relatively little to no risk and present no hazardous characteristics.

You won’t need to worry about the chemical igniting or corroding anything; it isn’t toxic. Sodium and calcium chloride are low or no-risk spills.

The proper chemical spill response merely has local personnel sweep the solids up and into the appropriate waste basket. Liquid low or no-risk chemicals are absorbable and easily flushed down the drain. 

2. Flammable Spills

Flammable chemical spills are solids, liquids, and gasses that are ignitable or liable to burn in specific conditions. Flammable spills include:

  • Pyrophoric substances
  • Desensitized explosives
  • Aerosols
  • Organic peroxides
  • Self-reactive substances and mixtures
  • Self-heating substances and mixtures
  • Substances that emit flammable gasses when in contact with water

Hydrogen, camphor, triethyl borane, and acetone are flammable chemicals. The first part of a flammable chemical spill response is equipping PPE, like respirators, to avoid breathing harmful substances.

The next step is to remove nearby ignition sources and avoid contact with incompatible materials (like oxidizers). You should ensure the area is ventilated so vapors don’t gather in low-lying areas. 

Keep the area ventilated for at least an hour after cleaning the spill. Cleaning and collecting the spill requires non-combustible materials like sand or vermiculite.

Do not use paper towels because they can increase vapor evaporation. Make sure you store the contaminated cleaning material in the proper waste containers. Call the lab manager or fire department for major spills. 

3. Acid Spills

Acid spills are corrosive materials that may cause skin or eye burns or damage. Formic and hydrochloric acid are two such chemicals. The first of many chemical spill cleanup tips is to put on your PPE. 

Use a respirator to keep from breathing harmful materials, wear goggles or a face shield to protect yourself from splashes, and use chemically resistant gloves to eliminate skin contact with acidic materials.

The first step in your chemical spill procedure should be soaking up the spill with inert, non-combustible materials, like sand, diatomaceous earth, or vermiculite. 

You can transform acidic materials with neutralizing agents, but only if it’s safe to perform. Neutralizing agents include soda ash and sodium bicarbonate. You can use pH paper to ensure the spill is neutralized.

Remember that non-toxic neutralization by-products are flushable, and hydrofluoric acid requires specialized absorbent substances. You must label and dispose of hazardous waste accordingly. 

4. Base and Caustic Spills

Base and caustic spills have similar dangerous results as acidic chemical spills, so equip chemically resistant gloves to limit skin contact and wear goggles and a respirator.

Sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxides are two types of base and caustic spills. There’s not much difference between handling an acidic or base/caustic spill. Follow the above steps for acidic chemical spills.

5. Mercury Spill

Mercury spills are extremely hazardous and are fatal if inhaled. Mercury may harm unborn children and can damage your central nervous system if you’ve had repeated or prolonged exposure to the chemical. 

Mercury can be corrosive to other metals and causes long-term harm to aquatic life. Mercury thermometers are often sources of mercury spills.

The immediate step in this chemical spill cleanup is to don proper PPE (self-contained breathing apparatus and protective suit, if possible) and evacuate the immediate area. 

Next, you’ll want to ensure that you’ve adequately ventilated the area. If it’s a minor mercury spill, you can clean it with a mercury vacuum, medicine dropper, mercury sponge, aspirator bulb, or inert absorbent material. 

After you’ve gotten the larger globules of mercury, clean the area with a neutralizing solution, like 20% sodium sulfide of sodium thiosulphate. If the mercury breaks into smaller globules, sprinkle sulfur powder. 

The sulfur powder must sit for a few hours before cleaning it away. After you’ve cleaned the spill, carefully label and dispose of the contaminated substances (including free mercury) in sealed containers. 

6. Oxidizer Spills

Oxidizers are substances that can intensify fires and cause explosions when they contact flammables, combustibles, organic materials, and finely reduced metals. Potassium permanganate is an oxidizer. 

First, equip your PPE; next, remove incompatible materials. You can sweep solid oxidizers away with non-combustible items. Liquid oxidizers need collecting with non-combustible, absorbent materials, like sand.

Once gathered, you can label and dispose of the waste substances. 

7. Acutely Toxic Spills

Acutely toxic spills may result in serious health complications or death during a single or short-term exposure such as inhalation, swallowing, or skin contact. Phosgene and nitric acid are acutely toxic spills. 

As always, wear your PPE. A self-contained breathing apparatus and a protective suit should be strongly considered when cleaning acutely toxic spills. Make sure you evacuate all nearby personnel. 

Remove incompatible substances near the spill. You can clean small-scale spills with non-combustible materials such as sand, diatomaceous earth, or vermiculite

A significant spill will require an emergency response team (such as the lab manager, spill team, or 911). Do not try cleaning a major acutely toxic spill under any circumstance. 

8. Health Hazards

A health hazard chemical spill may result in death if swallowed and cause allergies or asthma symptoms if inhaled. Health hazards can also result in genetic defects, cancer, organ damage, or fertility damage.

Ethylene glycol and tetrahydrofuran are two health hazards. Health hazard chemical spills require the same chemical spill procedures as acutely toxic spills. Both types of spills are highly dangerous and require extreme care.

9. Gas and Pressurized Chemicals

Gas or pressurized chemicals may explode when exposed to heat. Refrigerated liquified gasses can cause cryogenic burns or injuries. Helium, liquid nitrogen, and oxygen spills fall under this category. 

During the chemical spill cleanup, it’s imperative to remove all combustible materials and ignition sources. You can perform a leak test with soapy solutions or an electronic detector.

Once you find a leak, close all regulator valves and check all connections for minor leaks. If the leak continues, secure the cylinder to a fume hood and call the supplier. Significant leaks will require emergency response personnel.

Need Better Chemical Spill Preparedness? 

Hopefully, this article helps you and your team understand what to do during chemical spills. A lot of chemical spill cleanup involves understanding the situation and preparedness. 

Once you know more about the situation – like if it’s a minor vs. major spill and the substance in question, it becomes easier to clean the mess. Helping you prepare is where KHA comes in. 

KHA Online SDS Management can help you better understand your chemical inventory and plan for chemical spills, contact KHA today