Mitigate Spill Risks: Storing and Handling Hazardous Chemicals

Mitigate Spill Risks: Storing and Handling Hazardous Chemicals

With effective liquid control management in place, you can protect workers from exposure and prevent accidental releases into the environment.

Hazardous chemicals can present a major risk to employees and the environment if they are not properly handled and stored. With effective liquid control management in place, though, you can protect workers from exposure and prevent accidental releases into the environment.

Safety Starts on the Loading Dock

OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) requires that, “all employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces must have labels and safety data sheets for their exposed workers, and train them to handle the chemicals appropriately.”

When chemicals arrive at your facility, your employees should be able to assess the potential hazards and have the appropriate PPE and equipment to move the containers safely into your bulk storage area.

Preventive measures like drain covers and spill kits will prepare you for the spontaneous ruptures, accidents or spills that are bound to occur in your offloading or transfer area. Passive secondary containment devices such as berms, decks or pallets are also a must for containers that need to be stored temporarily before they are moved.

Prepare for Unintended Releases in Bulk Storage

Bulk storage containers, including drums and IBC totes, should be routinely inspected for signs of rust, corrosion or damage. If you discover a container that is not in good condition, repair or replace it as soon as possible to keep possible leaks or spills from harming employees or going down drains and reaching the environment.

In addition to inspecting containers, you should always have secondary containment in place when storing hazardous liquids. Secondary containment is simply a backup system that will catch a leak or spill in the event that the primary container fails. Common examples of secondary containment measures include containment pallets, decks or berming systems which can be temporary or permanent.

Choose your containment methods based on the properties of the liquids being stored. For example, corrosives like acids and bases should be stored on or in plastic. Flammables, including solvents and fuels, should be stored on or in properly bonded and grounded steel containment units to channel static electricity and prevent explosions. You should also separate flammables from any incompatible materials by a distance of at least 20 feet.

You need to consider the volume of the liquid being stored when deciding the type of secondary containment you need. If a leak or spill occurs, the containment should have enough sump capacity to hold either 100 percent of the largest container or 10 percent of the total volume of the liquid being stored—whichever is the larger number.

For example, if you are storing two 55-gallon drums, 100 percent of the largest container is 55 gallons and 10 percent of the total volume of both drums is only 11 gallons, so you should have at least 55 gallons of secondary containment. If you are storing 100 five-gallon pails—or 500 gallons total—100 percent of the largest container is five gallons and 10 percent of the total volume is 50 gallons. In this scenario, you need 50 gallons of secondary containment.

Liquids that leak into secondary containment are considered spills and should be cleaned up as soon as they are discovered.

Follow Best Practices for Dispensing Liquids

Safe handling of hazardous liquid starts with the proper container. Whether you are transferring and storing the liquid in a pail, drum, tank or IBC, choose the container based on chemical compatibility. In general, you should store corrosive liquids in plastic or composite containers or plastic-lined drums, and flammable liquids in steel containers for proper bonding and grounding. Always label containers to inform employees about the contents and possible hazards. This will help to avoid mixing incompatible liquids which can produce violent exothermic reactions or release toxic substances—usually as gases.

Most leaks and spills occur during liquid transfer, so following best practices is key. When dispensing liquid from a container:

  • Use barrel top mats on drums with pumps to absorb drips
  • Place trays under drum and IBC faucets to collect drips and spills
  • Use containers under pump nozzles and hoses to collect excess liquids
  • Store all containers with suitable containment to catch drips and leaks that result from liquid transfers

Just like choosing a container, you should select pumps based on chemical compatibility. If the pump is to be used for transferring flammable liquids, make sure it can be bonded and grounded. Other attributes to consider while choosing pumps include:

  • Viscosity of the liquid
  • Flow rate
  • Manual or powered pump (electric or air driven)

A common source for spills when pumping liquid is the hose, so make sure you drain any remaining liquid after each use. This will extend the life of the hose while preventing spills.

Even when you use the proper storage and handling considerations, leaks or spills can happen. Keep absorbents and PPE (gloves, suit, safety glasses, respirator, etc.) in all areas where you store and use liquids. Check the Safety Data Sheet to confirm that you are stocking the correct absorbents for the liquid. It is important to remember that absorbents take on the properties of the liquids being absorbed and should be disposed of according to local, state and/or federal regulations.

Spill kits are a simple way to make sure you have absorbents that are chemically compatible with your liquids—in the right amounts—on hand. If you have a spill, a spill kit helps you respond quickly to minimize the impact on workers and prevent the hazardous material from going down drains or escaping into the environment. Spill kits should include socks to surround the spill and keep it from spreading, and absorbent mat pads to soak it up.

When Hazardous Liquid Becomes Hazardous Waste

The EPA governs hazardous waste management under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA). Under RCRA regulations, wastes must be removed from a facility within a certain amount of time if it does not have a permit to treat, store or dispose of them.

Containers in hazardous waste storage areas need to be “clearly marked” with accumulation start dates and the words “hazardous waste.” Also, as with any storage area, you should equip your hazardous waste accumulation areas with containment, spill kits and PPE.

To help small-quantity generators (100 to 999 kg of hazardous waste per month) avoid excessive waste hauling costs and the need for a permit, the EPA created the satellite accumulation regulation, which allows them to accumulate up to 55 gallons of hazardous waste at or near the point of its generation without triggering waste accumulation start dates.

Satellite accumulation areas can also help prevent leaks and spills. Because wastes are collected near their point of generation, employees do not have to carry them from the processing area to a centralized collection point, decreasing the possibility of accidental spills.

Keeping a Lid on Hazardous Waste

Containers without lids allow fugitive emissions to become airborne, causing both indoor and outdoor air quality problems. They also increase the likelihood of spills if the container is bumped or knocked over. This is why RCRA requires containers holding hazardous waste to be kept closed, unless waste is being added to or removed from the container.

A container is considered closed when “all openings or lids are properly and securely affixed.” This includes the lid, bung caps and/or any other openings. This can be inconvenient for employees who need to add or remove waste from containers several times a day because removing the lids or bung caps each time is not easy.

Using sealable, latching funnels on containers with bung openings and latching lids on containers with open heads encourage compliance because they are easier to open and close.

Packing It Up and Moving It Out

Hazardous wastes must be properly packaged for shipping, with containers meeting all applicable DOT shipping specifications. Choosing the right shipping containers and correctly marking them helps ensure that hazardous wastes will be safely transported. Coupling these efforts with complete, accurate manifests lets everyone involved understand the nature of the wastes they are handling—and that safeguards both employees and the environment.

Safety—Every Step of the Way

With health and safety on everyone’s mind, maintaining a clean, safe workplace is more important than ever. Following best practices when handling hazardous liquids keeps your employees, facility and the environment out of harm’s way. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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