Hazardous materials can include anything explosive, radioactive, flammable or poisonous. You’ll find these substances in various locations, from industrial plants to medical laboratories to office environments. Spills can occur during the production, storage, transportation or disposal of these materials, presenting a danger to employees and the surrounding environment.
When a hazardous spill occurs, it’s crucial to know how to handle it properly and take immediate action to minimize injury to workers and damage to the facility. Let’s look at the essential steps you can take to clean a biohazard spill.
Minor vs. Major Hazardous Spills
The first step is to determine if you’re dealing with a minor spill or a major one. How you respond to a chemical spill or other hazardous material will depend on the resources available, the spill’s size, your experience and the associated risks.
What Is a Minor Spill?
Minor spills are low-volume spills in easily accessible locations, posing no threat to public life. Minor spills:
- Are relatively straightforward to address.
- Are easily contained.
- Don’t provide any dangers of fire, explosion, chemical reactions, inhalation risks or skin hazards.
If you have the necessary experience, knowledge and skills, you can clean up a minor hazardous spill. You can typically find the tools and resources you’ll need in a nearby spill kit. These kits will supply you with chemical absorbents, cleanup materials and personal protective equipment (PPE) that will allow you to safely and confidently clean up any minor spill.
What Is a Major Spill?
Major spills often occur in larger volumes and involve highly hazardous materials that emit toxic fumes, dust or gas. These spills will likely be too dangerous for your facility to manage, as they’re likely to fall outside the scope of your expertise and require equipment and resources you won’t have access to.
The materials involved in a major spill pose significant threats to anyone attempting to clean it up and their large volume could threaten the surrounding public. Hazardous spills can occur in a public area where you wouldn’t usually find the material or near an element like a floor drain that could transport it to such an area.
When this is the case, it’s vital to evacuate the area and contact emergency services immediately. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires facilities to swiftly report any accidents, spills or other hazardous substance releases to the appropriate State Emergency Response Commission (SERC). You may also need to submit a written follow-up within 30 days.
How to Respond to a Hazardous Spill
It’s vital to understand what procedures you should follow if you’re exposed to a chemical spill or other hazardous materials. The best solution is a detailed prevention and mitigation strategy. Companies should train all employees on correctly storing, transferring, handling, using and disposing of hazardous materials.
However, accidents are sometimes unavoidable. When this happens, it’s crucial to have a trained crew to identify hazards and follow your spill management procedure. This crew should be able to clean spills quickly while keeping themselves and those around them safe and protected.
If you don’t yet have a standardized policy for hazardous materials or chemical spill cleanup procedures, consider the following steps:
1. Alert All Nearby Persons
If the spill happens in an area with other people nearby, alert them that a spill has occurred. This communication will allow them to evacuate and give them the information they need to take the necessary precautions for their health and safety.
2. Evaluate the Risk
When an accident occurs, you should try your best to identify the substance, the quantity and all potential dangers. Identifying these factors will help you decide whether you require assistance or can handle the situation on your own. If the hazardous material is life-threatening or large in volume, call 911 and nearby supervisors.
3. Protect Yourself
If you believe the situation is manageable, you should don the appropriate PPE to safeguard yourself against contamination. You should be able to find the necessary PPE in an accessible spill kit or clearly marked location. The safety equipment you’ll likely need includes:
- Hazmat suits
If you or a colleague is exposed to hazardous materials, make sure to follow a decontamination plan appropriate to the type of substance involved.
4. Stop and Contain the Spill
Look for the source of the spill and do your best to stop it. Stopping a spill may involve plugging a hole, returning a container to its upright position or stopping the flow of a pipe. You’ll also want to block nearby drains and contain the spill in a single area. Your spill kit will have tools to help you dam and divert the hazardous material for a swift and manageable cleanup process.
5. Clean and Sanitize the Contaminated Area
With the source of the spill blocked, you can now begin your cleanup of the contaminated area. Before doing anything else, you should neutralize any acids or bases present using the neutralizers in your spill kit. Once that’s taken care of, you can safely use pads, pillows and other absorbents to remove the hazardous material from the area.
Make sure to sanitize the area using a mild detergent and place all contaminated objects in your secondary containment. Check with your local guidelines to learn how to discard spill-cleaning materials in your area.
6. Report the Accident
You or your colleagues should report any minor spills to your supervisors to ensure proper documentation. Depending on the spilled material, you may need to file a report with the EPA if the amount exceeds a predetermined reportable quantity. This documentation will help prevent future spills from taking place.
When Should You Not Clean Up a Hazardous Spill?
Some jobs make it likely for you to encounter a hazardous spill during your career. It’s crucial to understand when you should and shouldn’t intervene.
Every hazardous spill is different and will affect the environment in various ways. You’ll likely have the experience, capabilities and resources to handle most minor hazardous spills according to your workplace’s standard hazardous spill procedures. However, as these spills increase in size and severity — such as spills including hazardous chemicals such as cyanides, bromines, hydrazine and nitriles — you’ll need to call in the experts for help.
At a basic level, it’s best to avoid attempting to clean up any major spill. You should also avoid cleanup attempts when you aren’t sure what the hazardous substance is. Instead, you’ll want to call your supervisor and 911 if necessary. It’s also wise to leave the cleanup to more qualified personnel in situations where:
- The substance is outside your expertise and comfort level.
- The spill is large.
- The spill contains highly toxic, flammable materials.
- The spill occurs in a non-ventilated room.
- The substance provides inhalation risks.
- You begin to feel the effects of the hazardous substance.
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