Signs and labels provide 24/7/365 safety communications at facilities, in the field, and in multiple languages.

Visual Communications & Spill Containment Strategies and Techniques

For those unavoidable times when spills do occur, work areas that contain hazardous chemicals should have a properly labeled chemical spill response kit.

From Portland to Pittsburgh, from the Arctic to the Adriatic, industrial chemical spills are common. Spill response teams need to act fast when these events occur, with the appropriate cleanup and communications supplies on hand.

Industry and the public are vitally concerned about spills and their potential economic and environmental impacts. Highly publicized spills such as the Exxon Valdez and the recent Gulf of Mexico spill incited strong reactions and have dramatically increased efforts by both industry and government to increase protection against spills.

Signs and labels provide 24/7/365 extra-large safety communications at facilities, in the field, and in multiple languages to workers, emergency responders, and the public. When created by thermal transfer printers, signs and labels are very durable and adhere to stainless steel, concrete, glass, and other surfaces. If an incident takes place after dark, phosphorescent tapes convey critical information. Barcoded asset labels make it much easier to identify equipment such as booms and vacuum trucks, providing the ability to analyze, identify, and return the millions and millions of dollars of equipment used on site -- a valuable inventory control application. This helps protect contractors while minimizing the risk of mistakes and audits.

Cleanup workers from major spills such as the chaotic BP spill, which involved five states and thousands of workers, used barcode asset labeling on a daily basis.

"Use of barcodes for identification of oil spill response equipment can present useful advantages. It enables much more information to be made available than on a simple inventory tag. As an example, some spill response systems consist of multiple components, all of which are essential for the system to be operated at an incident location. An oil skimmer may consist of a skimmer head, hydraulic power pack, hydraulic umbilicals, oil transfer hose, hose flotation attachments, and other items, all of which must be mobilized. Information provided by a barcode can help ensure none of the vital components is omitted," said John McMurtrie of the International Spill Control Organization.

"Not all types of equipment are compatible with all types of incidents. So we label all our gear to indicate how and when it should be used," said Scott Metzger of Clean Harbors Environmental Services.

"The problem with hazmat response is the number or volume of potential products or mixes of products, which may limit the type of cleanup tools that can be used. It is always better to check to make sure you are using the proper tools for a cleanup," added John Parker, a spill cleanup specialist.

Packing a Response Kit
Wherever chemicals are present -- from small factories, facilities, and warehouses to open ocean waters -- spills can occur. Prevention (including safe handling procedures) is the best strategy. But for those unavoidable times when spills do occur, work areas that contain hazardous chemicals should have a chemical spill response kit that includes:

  • Disposable gloves
  • Safety goggles
  • Absorbent (spill pillows, socks, sorbents)
  • Bags or bins for containment
  • Hazardous waste tags and labels to identify contents for appropriate disposal

Chemical response includes four steps:

  • Notify those in the area that a spill has happened. Evacuate and cordon off the area if necessary.
  • Treat the injuries.
  • Identify the spilled chemicals.
  • Assess whether the spill can be effectively cleaned. If not, seek additional help and resources.

Skilled emergency responders should focus on the following:

  • Large-volume spills
  • Hazardous materials (ethanol, e.g.) and conditions (fires, explosions, toxicity)
  • Strong odors
  • Personal injury or risk of exposure

"If spill containment products are designed and packaged for use with specific hazard classes, such as acid-compatible absorbent pads in a spill kit designed for corrosive liquids, then I see the importance of bundling labels and signage in these kits. When you use those products, you will inherently need the appropriate container markings and labels with instructions about how to dispose the absorbents after they have been used," said Bob Ransdell from NRC Environmental Services. "We keep kits handy because we respond to spills of such a wide variety of materials that it would be impractical to have all possible permutations of labels and markings included with the products.

"In those facilities where the need for spill containment products is periodic, they will probably purchase new spill kits or at least replacement products. Having a range of labels and container markings bundled with the spill kit might be a valuable service. The unused labels and signs might be wasted or duplicated when the new products are purchased -- a small price to pay to ensure that the waste containers are correctly marked and labeled after cleanup is completed," he said.

Training in the latest technologies and products is critical so hazmat workers can quickly contain and control spills. Drafting an advance response plan and training workers can save valuable time when an emergency occurs. All cleanup products need to be correctly used, however.

"We see people trying to use oil-only pads to clean up water-based chemical spills to no avail. We also see all-purpose pads utilized to spread out on a water surface to collect the oil," said Emergency Response Manager Damon Yost.

Choosing the Right Absorbent for the Application
Spills should be contained and isolated, first to prevent contamination and then so work can be done to remove the contamination. Isolation can be accomplished with two product types: absorbent and non-absorbent. Absorbent isolation products include oil-only booms, sweeps, and socks. Non-absorbent isolation products include berms and containment pools.

A third product type is designed for removing spills. Removal products include pads, rugs, mats, pillows, and loose sorbents, which are used for oil, hazmat, and universal applications. Universal removal products absorb oils, coolants, solvents, and water. They’re used for tool and chemical cabinets, parts cleaning, and machine repairs.

Oil-only removal products are used for oil spills on land and water, machine repair, and parts cleaning. Hazard removal products absorb acids, bases, and unknown liquids. They're used for chemical spills, battery acid leaks, and storage cabinet liners.

Diverters and drain guards prevent hazardous chemicals from draining into clean water supplies.

Spill kits have been developed for a wide range of spill volumes. Spill kits consist of items such as pads, socks, pillows, gloves, goggles, and tamper-proof seals. Most kits are available in universal, oil-only, and hazmat formats.

Removal products are color coded for quick identification:

  • White for oil and petroleum-based fluids, which makes it easy to tell when spill removal products have become saturated
  • Blue for oil and petroleum-based fluids, ideal for professional settings
  • Gray for absorbing oils, coolants, solvents, and water
  • Camouflage can be used universally – from water-based liquids to petroleum-based liquids – and has a pattern designed to hide leaks and drips
  • Green, also universal
  • Yellow for absorbing acids, bases, and unknown liquids

As long as pipes burst and leaks occur, spill containment is a necessary part of facility and environmental management. Quick action and clear communication are always critical. There are several associations worldwide involved in spill control. These include the Spill Control Association of America, Islands' Oil Spill Association, UKSpill Association, and The International Spill Control Organization.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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