How to Manage and Respond to Spills: A Complete Guide - Part Two

Jul 12, 2021 Posted by Walter Ingles

Part One of this series of articles outlines the principles for preventing liquid spills and leaks in the workplace, which includes a combination of good site management, liquid storage management, active spill prevention, monitoring and maintenance, and staff training.

Part Two of this series (this article) outlines the principles of responding appropriately to a spill, which includes developing an incident management plan and ensuring the appropriate response equipment is easily accessible.

Part Three covers the principles of managing waste associated with a spill, which includes guidelines for the storage and disposal of wastes associated with a spill or leak.


How to Respond to a Spill

The first thing to consider when responding to a spill in the workplace is to determine how severe the incident is and what issues the spill causes.

The severity of a spill depends on the type of incident that occurs. It can be an emergency requiring an urgent response and possibly even emergency services such as the fire department to attend the scene. Such as a dangerous chemical spill, for example.

Or it could simply be a small scale spill or leak that can be handled and cleaned up by onsite personnel.

Whatever the type of spill, it is important to have in place an incident management plan that covers all the potential spill scenarios that could occur at your workplace and how to respond appropriately to each type of incident.

image1 (1)

A spill kit tailored to the types of liquids stored onsite is an important part of your incident management plan, such as this oil and fuel spill kit

How to Develop an Incident Management Plan

Even if an incident is not an emergency, it is important that the response to the incident is handled appropriately to ensure any risks of harm to people or the environment are minimised or eliminated

For example, if staff are not properly trained in how to respond to an incident, they may inadvertantly flush liquid waste from a spill down an internal drain or stormwater drain, which could cause serious harm to both the environment and human health if the liquid involved is classed as a hazard.

Developing a suitable incident management plan will depend on the types of liquid substances that you store onsite and their quantities.

What is an Incident Management Plan?

An adequate incident management plan outlines the procedures for handling an event that falls outside the normal operating conditions of a workplace, such as a fire, explosion or uncontained liquid spill.

The detail or length of the plan itself will depend on the size of the operations and what type of activities and substances are involved. For example, dangerous goods such as flammable liquids and other hazardous substances can present a far greater risk to health and the environment than less hazardous substances, and the incident planning process will reflect that level of risk.

However complex or simple the plan is, it should provide a detailed guide to the procedures required to manage any incident safely and in a way that minimises harm to personnel or the environment, as well as the business operation itself.

Determining the level of risk associated with a potential liquid spill or leak at a workplace, and how to manage that risk effectively, can be a complex task. Enlisting an expert to conduct a proper risk assessment can help you prevent costly workplace incidents and ensure that you comply with Australian WHS regulations.


 A professional risk assessment and compliance audit can help prevent costly workplace incidents

The relevant emergency services and regulatory authorities should also be consulted when preparing an incident management plan that involves potentially sizable incidents that could cause significant harm to human health or the environment.

Refer to Relevant Safety Data Sheets (SDS)

When formulating your incident management plan, refer to the relevant Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

These documents should be updated regularly and kept in easily-accessible, secure document holders.

image3 (2)

Refer to safety data sheets (SDS) when  developing an incident management plan

What is in an Incident Management Plan?

An incident management plan should include the following main elements.

  • The procedures for handling the types of events and issues that could arise, such as:
  • Fires, including bushfires
  • Explosions
  • Floods and destructive winds
  • Spill management
  • Fire water management
  • Reactions between incompatible substances
  • The rolesof the people responsible for reviewing and implementing the incident management plan
  • The contact details of those personnel
  • A site diagram that clearly shows the location of critical structures and equipment, including:
  • Access pathways for emergency services
  • All of the site’s chemical storage facilities
  • Emergency response equipment such as fire extinguishers and spill kits
  • Stormwater infrastructure such as drain inlets and outlets, piping, isolation valves
  • An up-to-date register or manifest (if required) of all the dangerous goods and hazardous substances stored onsite and where they are stored
  • How to contact the relevant emergency services, such as the fire brigade, paramedics, port authority and regulatory authorities (local council, EPA, etc.)
  • Reference to the procedure for reporting any incidents that occur, including how they were caused and the process for ensuring actions are taken to prevent similar incidents reoccuring

image4 (1)

Ensure your spill kits are the right ones for the type of hazardous liquids stored at your worksite

What is Spill Response Equipment?

The equipment required to respond effectively to workplace spills and leaks can be integrated into the site infrastructure or stored in easily accessible locations.

Spill response infrastructure can include:

  • Site containment systems
  • Drain isolation valves
  • Retention pits

Spill response equipment can include:

NOTE: Always check specific SDS to ensure absorbancy

  • Fire extinguishers
  • Recovery drums or containers compatible with the types of hazardous liquids stored onsite and enough of them to hold the maximum amount of liquid that could be spilled
  • Neutralising substances for any hazardous acids or bases stored or used onsite
  • Mechanisms or equipment to effectively block any stormwater drain inlets that could be within the spill zone
  • Adequate drains, booms, or flexible floor bunding that can prevent spills or leaks escaping outside the containement area
  • Portable pumping equipment and retention tanks capable of handling the quantities of liquids involved
  • Appropriate safety equipment and PPE for all personnel that could potentially be involved in spill response

NOTE: It’s a good idea to keep spill response equipment on a pallet or other portable platform to enable quick transport to the spill incident location. 

What Does Incident Response Involve?

If a spill or leakage incident is deemed serious enough to threaten the health and safety of people or the environment, the response should involve a site evacuation in line with the OHS requirements for your particular worksite.

If the spill or leak is not deemed to be a threat to the safety of personnel onsite, then the following general response principles should be applied when managing a liquid spill:

  • Stop the spill or leak at its source if safe and practical to do so.
  • Call emergency services on Triple Zero immediately if:
  • The spill or leak involves hazardous substances such as flammable or combustible liquids, toxic substances or corrosive materials;
  • You suspect the liquid spilled could escape into the outside environment.
  • If safe to do so, use appropriate spill control equipment and absorbent materials across the whole spill zone to contain the spill if the spill is not already contained.
  • Make sure that any spill control equipment and absorbent materials used in the clean-up are disposed of properly (refer to Part Three of this series for a detailed guide to the management of waste from spills).
  • Treat any water used for cleaning up or decontaminating spills as contaminated waste water - using appropriate secondary or site containment systems in place (see good site planning section in Part One)
  • If the spill is exposed to potential rainfall, the area should be covered if practicable to ensure clean-up operations are not compromised
  • Maintain an accurate record of the incident and prepare a suitable report for the relevant management department or personnel.
  • Ensure that the report predicates an investigation of the incident to determine the cause of the spill and to identify and implement precautionary action that will reduce the risk of a similar spill incident reoccuring.
  • Ensure the spilled liquid is not allowed to flow into the stormwater system.

NOTE: Ensure all relevant personnel are prepared to attend to every spill immediately, no matter what size the spill or leakage is deemed to be.

Australian Environmental Protection Authorities (EPAs) maintain liquid storage and handling guidelines which advise following a simplified four-step process in the event of a liquid spill in the workplace. Educating all personnel about these four basic steps can be an effective way to improve incident response across the workforce.


Four-Step Spill Response Sequence
STOP the spill
CONTAIN the spill
REPORT the spill
CLEAN UP the spill

What’s the Difference Between a Minor Spill and a Major Spill?

The quantity or volume of a liquid substance spilled or leaked is a major factor in determining whether the incident is a minor spill or a major spill

Other factors include the location of the spill and the type of substance involved and how hazardous or dangerous the liquid is.

In the event of a spill involving a hazardous liquid chemical, you can refer to a chemical spill decision tree flowchart to determine if the spill is minor or major.

Minor spills are classified as incidents that can effectively be cleaned up by an individual person onsite or small crew.

Major chemical spills, however, require a far more coordinated response in line with the workplace’s incident management and spill response plan.

Classify an incident as a major spill if any of the following criteria are met:

More than 100 millilitres or 10 grams of a highly hazardous chemical (such as a carcinogen) The chemical presents an immediate threat to human health and safety or the environment The spill occurred outside the site or area where the substance is generally handled

More than 1 litre or 100 grams of a volatile or flammable solvent, reactive or corrosive (acid or base) liquid or solid

The chemical is an immediate fire hazard, such as an uncontrolled gas leak (liquid petroleum gas for example) There are no adequately trained personnel available to clean up the spill
  The chemical is unknown  


NOTE: Extremely dangerous substances, mercury or highly corrosive acids for example, are considered a major spill at volumes below 100 mL.

Chemical Spill Decision Tree Flowchart

Use the chemical spill decision tree flowchart to work through the process of deciding if the incident should be classified as a minor spill or major spill.

Even if the incident is deemed a minor spill, adequate and timely incident response is essential to minimise any harm to human health or the environment.

Download Chemical Spill Decision Tree Flowchart

Next Steps

Part Three of How to Manage and Respond to Spills: A Complete Guide will guide you through the process of managing wastes associated with leaks and spills of liquid substances in the workplace

Dangerous goods storage specialists STOREMASTA have also developed an eBook covering the essentials of storing flammable liquids. You can download this free eBook, Essential Considerations When Storing Flammable Liquids Indoors, right now, and help ensure that you meet your compliance obligations


Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Storage Specialist. He helps organisations reduce risk and improve efficiencies in the storage and management of dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals.

Like what you’re reading?

Subscribe to stay up to date with the latest from STOREMASTA®

Recommended Resources

Dangerous Goods Segregation Guide

How to segregate incompatible classes of dangerous goods

Segregate the 9 different classes of dangerous goods in a way which will reduce risk to people, property, and the environment.

Learn more

What Are 4 Common Chemical Bunding Issues Found In The Workplace?
From the blog

What Are 4 Common Chemical Bunding Issues Found In The Workplace?

Chemical bunding is a key part of any spill containment system and is designed to protect your organisation and the ...

Learn more

Spill Containment Requirements: Your State-By-State Guide
From the blog

Spill Containment Requirements: Your State-By-State Guide

Would you like to know more about the spill containment regulations for your state? Or are wondering what bunding ...

Learn more

A Quick Guide To Determining  The Need For Bunding and Secondary Containment
From the blog

A Quick Guide To Determining  The Need For Bunding and Secondary Containment

Does your workplace carry any type of hazardous chemicals? If you’re one of the thousands of Australian businesses that ...

Learn more

Choosing Spill Bunding For Your Flammable and Combustible Liquids
From the blog

Choosing Spill Bunding For Your Flammable and Combustible Liquids

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words ‘chemical spill’? Is it a massive oil ...

Learn more