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Chemical Spills Can Be Dangerous

Noel McCatty, Jr.

Noel (Mac) McCatty, Jr.

Safety and Health Consultant

Three subcontractors were at a chemical site fitting pipe when phosphorus tri-chloride spilled, resulting in an explosion and the formation of a hydrochloric acid cloud. Two of the workers were hospitalized, and the third worker was treated on-site and released. The employer was cited for not providing escape respirators or having written procedures covering the use of such respirators. (Source: OSHA.gov )

Chemical spills and leaks can be dangerous, even in small amounts. Are your employees trained to respond quickly and effectively should a chemical spill or leak take place at your work or job site? In this article, we will discuss the importance of spill reporting and containment.

Currently, OSHA does require specific training for general employees’ response to an accidental spill or leak of potentially hazardous chemicals. There are, however, specific training requirements for workers who:

  • Handle certain specified hazardous substances such as formaldehyde, benzene, etc. (29 CFR 1910, Subpart Z).
  • Work with chemicals considered “highly hazardous” (Subpart H).
  • Are part of an emergency response team responsible for cleaning up spills and leaks (29CFR 1910.120 [q] [6]).

As first responders who are likely to witness or discover a hazardous materials release, you must have sufficient training or experience to competently handle chemical identification, chemical knowledge or risks, and notification procedures (29CFR 1910.129[q][6]).

In addition, the hazard communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) requires employers to inform employees about hazardous substances in the workplace. They also must train employees to understand hazards and safe work practices, including dealing with chemical spills.

Subpart I, Personal Protective Equipment, would also apply to spill response. Employees who clean up chemical spills must be properly equipped with PPE such as goggles, gloves, chemical-resistant clothing and footwear and respirators.

Spill Reporting:

When a spill occurs, the first thing any employee should do is to notify the appropriate person, whether that person is a supervisor, one of your staff, or in the case of a large spill, your emergency coordinator.

The employee should include in his or her report:

a. The substance involved in the spill, if known.

b. Location of the spill.

c. Size of the spill.

d. Approximate rate of flow.

e. Any known exposures.

Spill Containment:

Once the spill has been reported, it is time to focus on containment. Specific steps for containing chemical spills depend on the chemical, the location of the spill, rate of flow, and size of the leaking container, among other issues. But the sooner containment starts, the better. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or SDS for the chemical will provide essential information for containment.

In general, spill containment consists of several key steps, which must happen quickly and often overlap:

a. Close any valves or pumps that are allowing the substance to spill.

b. Cover drains or other possible routes that would allow the spill to spread and cause environmental damage.

c. Patch holes in the container with patch kits, valve plugs, or other suitable method.

Choose the best method to contain the spill: For example:

a. Building a dike around the spill to stop it from spreading.

b. Repairing the container or placing it within a sound container.

c. Channeling the spill by diking, pumping, or opening a trench to a secure location for cleanup.

d. Placing an empty container under the leak to catch the spilling chemical.

e. Rotating or shifting the leaking container’s position to stop the spill.

Chemical spills and leaks can be dangerous. Train employees to respond quickly and effectively.

If your company needs assistance with chemical safety and hazard communication, contact us to request a free and confidential on-site safety and health consultation. To read more about OSHA’s hazard communication standard, click here.