At most facilities, spilling two tablespoons of oil is no big deal. It’s likely an absorbent mat or wipe is lying nearby that will easily soak up the spill in seconds.
But when that spill is mercury, a toxic substance that can damage to your nervous and reproductive systems, you can’t reach for the mat or wipe that you would use on oil, water or any other spilled chemical. If your facility handles or stores mercury or mercury-containing items, it is crucial that employees know how to properly clean it up when it spills and have the right tools to do so.
Because of mercury’s toxicity, its use has been phased out of many practices, but can still be found in certain objects, such as fluorescent light bulbs, thermometers and barometers.
When spilled, mercury breaks apart in beads instead of clumping in a puddle. These beads can be very tiny, making them hard to find. Mercury also evaporates at room temperature and its fumes do not have a smell, which makes it difficult to detect without sensors or other specialized instruments.
Mercury is different than most other liquids. If you try to clean up the spill with regular absorbents and other spill supplies, you could make the spill worse by spreading it out. Stocking mercury spill kits and hanging a step-by-step spill response poster where mercury is kept or used will increase the chance of effective cleanup. Employees should also be trained in proper mercury spill response with regular refresher training.
If necessary, coordinate spill response with a local hazmat team or a company that specializes in mercury spill cleanup.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if you spill more mercury than the amount in a thermometer, but less than two tablespoons (which is about one pound), you must report the spill to your local health department. And if you spill more than one pound of mercury, you are required to call the National Response Center.