Sweep up any debris caused by the spill or the cleanup operation and dispose of it properly. It is advisable for workers to wear masks during any sweep-up operations involving a spill.

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Dealing with Industrial Workplace Spills

Spills of one form or another are almost unavoidable in some industrial facilities. Given their likelihood, what is most important is how to prevent and react—and react effectively—when a spill occurs. This typically involves having the right tools and know-how to clean up the mess.

When a spill happens, the first thing we must be concerned about is what kind of spill it is. Especially if workers are using hazardous materials, any spill would be considered an "emergency spill," which OSHA defines as:

  • One in which there are high levels of toxic or potentially harmful ingredients or substances that could injure workers if exposed
  • Could cause a fire or explosion
  • Significantly or dangerously impacts indoor air quality or creates an oxygen deficiency in the facility
  • Necessitates workers evacuating the area

While knowing the nature of the spill is critical, in most cases unless hazardous materials are being used by the workers, most spills do not fall into OSHA's "emergency spill" category. But just to help make sure, administrators should be aware of what types of spills might happen in their facility. One way to accomplish this is to make sure all liquid containers and their ingredients be identified and labeled. This will also help considerably when it comes to the actual cleanup operation. We should note that another type of spill that may occur in an industrial location is the result of someone getting sick. In such cases, administrators and staff should always assume that the vomit may contain norovirus or similar pathogens. In such cases, awareness of proper cleanup procedures and how to use the necessary tools is crucial.

Before discussing procedures to clean up the spill, what is almost as important is preventing the spill from happening in the first place. Equipment used in the workplace could potentially leak; examine key areas such as the following:

  • Hydraulic lines
  • Pipes, hoses, or anything that carries fluids
  • Check fluid holding containers for rust, bulging, tearing seams.
  • Examine fluid holding containers that have recently been moved or transported; check that the container was not damaged when moved.

Other steps to take to prevent spills include using contoured or molded pallets to reduce the risk of containers being knocked over. Additionally:

  • Make sure liquid containers are not stored too close to the front of a shelf.
  • All containers should be stored with the opening on top if and where possible.
  • Consider installing seep-through floor mats around containers that hold fluid; this way, any spillage will fall below the walking surface, helping to prevent a slip and fall accident.

A further step in prevention is to simply make sure the work area is kept as clean and clutter-free as possible. Well-kept and well maintained workplaces tend to breed safety; workers tend to have more respect for the facility, their own safety, and the safety of others in such a setting.

Your Spill Response Action Plan
While the steps to take in any spill response action plan are similar, one thing that must be considered is the size of the spill. If the spill involves 50 gallons or more of a liquid, this likely will qualify as a major spill. However, there are no set rules. A major spill in one workspace could involve just a gallon of liquid or much less.

Also, before reviewing the steps in the spill response action plan, it is important to set up a spill response team. These are members of your staff that have been taught how to handle cleanup operations safely and effectively. With a team established, the actual action plan would look something like this:

  • Isolate the area; install warning cones around the immediate area; a 25-foot radius is recommended.
  • Isolating the area may involve having workers evacuate the immediate workspace; this will be determined by the size and type of the spill.
  • If the contents of the spill have been identified, get the Safety Data Sheets related to the liquid to review warnings and hazard information (if there are concerns the spill could be a hazardous material, police or the fire department should be called at this point).
  • Before beginning any cleanup operations, wear appropriate safety gear including gloves, eye protection, gowns, etc.
  • Take steps to control the spill—for example, put smaller leaking containers inside larger containers to prevent further release of fluids.
  • If the spill is fast spreading, containing the spill becomes critical. Have handy such things as sand, clay, or even pet litter; these are absorbent materials that will help absorb and block the spill from spreading.
  • Depending on the size of the spill, use one or more spill cleanup and absorbent kits to absorb what remains of the spill and clean the area. Be sure to wipe down walls and equipment near the spill, to remove splatter.
  • Sweep up any debris caused by the spill or the cleanup operation and dispose of it properly. It is advisable for workers to wear masks during any sweep-up operations involving a spill.
  • Most workplaces will require that the spill and the cleanup operation be documented in order to evaluate how effectively the spill response plan worked as well as to look for ways to prevent such a spill from happening again.

Spill Cleanup/Absorbent Kits
The kit used to clean up the spill is central to the spill response action plan. When selecting such a kit, it is always a wise idea for administrators to bring in their spill response team. Having them involved in the selection process helps them better understand what types of kits are available and how to use them.

Additionally, selecting the most expensive kit with lots of bells and whistles is not always the best idea. Very often, the bells and whistles are noticed once—when paying for the kit.

With all this in mind, among the items the spill cleanup kit should include are the following:

  • One absorbent packet; this is the most important component in the kit. Look for an absorbent packet that can pick up 70 to as much as 90 times its own weight.
  • The kit should include disposable gloves and at least two of the following: scoops, towels, disinfectant towelettes.

Some kits will include quaternary ammonia solution along with a bottle for its use. This solution may be referred to as "quats," the key ingredient in many disinfectants, used to disinfect/sanitize the spill area. (Before using the quaternary ammonia solution, the spill area must be cleaned up thoroughly; this will allow the solution to work most effectively.)

One of the most important points about kits as well as all the materials used in spill cleanup operations is to have them handy. Walking from one end of a large facility to another consumes valuable time that could be used to contain a spill and clean it up. Because time is of the essence when it comes to a spill response program, this is time dangerously wasted.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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