Chemical spills can be as simple as someone knocking over a tin of paint, or breaking the cap off a bottle of liquid cleaner (which now leaks) — to dropping a hose coupling that begins to spray acid from a bulk chemical storage tank.
If there is any risk of a chemical leak or spills at your worksite you must have a spill containment system in place. This blog takes a closer look at chemical spills: how they are caused, how to prevent them, and then how to select the best spill kits for your chemical handling and storage areas.
Causes of chemical spills
Determining the ways hazardous chemicals and Dangerous Goods could leak or be released at your workplace is the best place to get started. We identify the following four major causes of chemical spills (read on while considering how these events could happen to you:)
1. Human Error
Chemical spills can happen when people make mistakes or are just being careless. Attempting to carry a gas cylinder (instead of using a gas bottle trolley) and then dropping it, or leaving the lid off a drum of oil, are both examples of careless behaviour that can lead to chemical spills. Implementing good housekeeping policies, training your staff, and providing adequate supervision are preventative measures required under WHS Regulations.
2. Equipment failure
Many chemical spills are caused by equipment breaking down. It could be an old chemical store that is no longer impervious to chemical fumes, a pump on fuel dispensing equipment that fails, or a worn thread on a gas bottle valve. Implement preventative maintenance, integrity testing, and regular site inspections.
3. Natural disasters
Many chemical spills are caused by natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, and bushfires. Your risk assessment must consider the possible impact of weather and climate change on your chemical stores. We recommend using heavy duty cabinets that are built to withstand extreme weather, including cyclonic winds.
4. Deliberate acts of malice
It’s sad that we live in a world where disgruntled employees take up arms or place needles in strawberries. Your risk assessment should also factor in the possibility of a deliberate act of malice, vandalism, or sabotage to your chemical stores. Some excellent steps in preventing deliberate acts that could result in a devastating (and expensive) chemical spill are:
Using heavy duty chemical safety cabinets built to Australian Standards.
Securing chemical and Dangerous Goods stores with fencing and barriers.
Restricting access to chemical handling and storage areas.
Having a visitor login and logout facility to monitor activity across the entire worksite.
Estimating the size and impact of a spill
Once you’ve determined where and how a chemical spill could occur, you’ll need to decide on the capacity of the spill kits. What’s the largest volume of chemicals you hold onsite, and how far could those chemicals spread? You may need to consult industry experts to help you calculate the spread, but as a simple way to get started you should consider the:
Volume of chemicals (eg, larger quantity has the potential to spread further).
Form of chemicals (eg, liquid chemicals can spread much further).
Nature of chemicals (eg, petrol might evaporate faster than oil).
Location of stores and base materials (eg, flammable liquids spilled directly onto a ship deck).
REMEMBER: If your worksite has potential for a major chemical spill you’ll need a Chemical Spill Response Plan which will probably form part of a site Emergency Plan. A major spill is any situation where the volume of chemicals is greater than the capacity of accessible spill containment kits. It could also involve smaller quantities of a highly toxic chemical where the available PPE would not ensure the safety of all workers.
Creating your spill kit
Spill kits can be purchased pre-made or you can create your own. Use the information below as a generic checklist to ensure your kit has everything you need (remembering a risk assessment is always the best practice). Factors you will need to consider include:
1. Compatibility of chemicals, materials and substances
You have a duty under WHS Regulations to ensure that your attempts to clean up a chemical spill don’t set off explosions, fires or other dangerous reactions because the materials you used were incompatible with the substances released in the spill. A risk assessment is the best way of approaching compatibility issues along with:
Checking Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for compatibility issues.
Including chemical classifier strips in your spill kit (these can indicate the presence of unknown or otherwise dangerous substances).
Using neutralisers before beginning absorption actions.
2. Including neutralisers
Neutralising agents are used to render acids and other dangerous chemicals (eg, phosphorous compounds, caustics) safe for cleanup. Some neutralisers reduce vapours and fumes and include testing kits that change colour to indicate the chemicals have been fully neutralised.
3. Personal Protective Equipment
The impact of the spill will also be affected by the ability of the chemical to create hazardous vapours and fumes, or burn the skin/eyes of workers. Consult the SDSs to determine if your kit will need to include PPE such as chemical resistant clothing, eye guards, and breathing apparatus.
4. Choosing suitable absorption materials
Use the SDS to select the most suitable materials for soaking up or absorbing the chemicals. Your kit might include a range of pillows, spill pads, spill socks, and granular sorbent. Here some different types:
Hazmat sorbents are specifically designed to soak up aggressive liquids (eg, acids).
Oil only sorbents repel water and soak up liquids with an oil-base.
Loose sorbents absorb liquids but minimise dust in heavy traffic areas.
Booms or socks can be placed around leaking machinery or containers.
Floating booms soak up oils and other chemicals released on water.
5. Tools and equipment
Your spill kit will need containers for holding the chemical waste (plastic bins, bags, labels) and anything you need for collecting it (brooms, scoops, shovels.) You may also need cleaning products and latex gloves for cleaning concrete and other surfaces after the chemicals have been removed. And don’t forget to create a suitable operating procedure and laminating a set of instructions to go inside the kit.
REMEMBER: Tools, containers, gloves and cleanup materials must be compatible with the hazardous chemicals involved in the spill.
We recommend implementing a risk management methodology at your workplace to ensure that the chemical spill kits you choose are actually suitable for the chemical hazards and scope of the job site. To learn more download our free eBook How to manage the risk of Hazardous Chemicals in the workplace. Read it today to ensure the chemical control measures you have already implemented are working.