Spill Response Techniques and Decontamination.  

This spill response series will address risk assessment, proper protection of responders, spill planning and training requirements, spill response techniques, decontamination of workers and equipment, and reporting requirements.

Testing the Waters

Spills of an unknown nature can cause anxiety for responders. When a spill occurs, determining exactly what has spilled is critical so that responders can choose the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Knowing the characteristics of the spilled material also helps responders choose the specialized instruments, tools and other equipment that may be necessary during response.

Under the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires responders to evaluate a situation and determine hazards prior to response efforts [29 CFR 1910.120(c)]. Because hazards and response methods will vary depending on the nature of the spill, knowing what has spilled helps responders properly prepare.

If the identity or nature of a spill cannot be determined, responders are taught to assume the worst. Making this assumption, however, often results in the use of more costly and cumbersome PPE, as well as delayed response to the situation.

In the Zone

When spills present dangers such as explosion or inhalation hazards, correct identification of spilled materials aids in establishing proper isolation or work zones to protect both responders and the public from harm. Air monitoring equipment is sometimes used to help establish these zones.

Even if a spill is more of a nuisance than a safety hazard, establishing zones helps maintain site security and keeps untrained persons safely out of the spilled materials so that responders can efficiently attend to the spill.

Surround and Conquer

With responders properly protected and the area around the spill secured, the actual work of spill response can begin. Creating a physical barrier around the spilled liquid helps limit the area affected, and consequently lessens the overall amount of space that will need to be cleaned and restored.

For smaller spills, absorbent socks are one quick answer to containing spills. Larger spills may require bigger and longer booms. Skilled responders will be able to gauge their needs and choose the correct materials.

Spill kits are a convenient way to help ensure that adequate response materials are on-hand. These kits should be positioned throughout a facility in spill-prone areas and stocked with appropriate absorbents, PPE and tools.

The use of nonabsorbent dikes and earthen dams are two other methods of confining spilled liquids. Special efforts should be taken to block access to floor or storm drains and other environmentally sensitive areas.

The Heart of the Problem

With the spill surrounded, the next step in response is to find the source of the spill and stop it. If the source is a drum that has been punctured with a forklift, this can be as simple as rolling the drum over so that the hole is on the top.

Faulty valves, ruptured pipelines and holes in flexible hoses are other common sources of leaks and spills. Clearly marking shut-off valves, keeping them unobstructed and training responders on their locations will facilitate faster response to these incidents.

Stocking commonly used patch and repair items, pipe wraps, and tools such as non-sparking wrenches and hammers in spill kits can help anyone responding to provide aid more quickly, instead of spending time looking for crucial items.

In the Trenches

After the spill has been contained and the source stopped, actual cleanup of the spilled material can begin. Unless something inside the spill area needs to be removed or protected from further damage, it is best to start from the outside of the spill and work toward the center.

Absorbent mats, pillows and socks can be used to soak up spilled liquids. Be sure to verify the chemical compatibility of the absorbents being used. Some absorbents contain cellulose, which is not a good choice for spills of corrosive materials.

If purity is not an issue, spills can also be vacuumed to recover the spilled material for reuse. For flammable or corrosive materials, be sure to verify that the vacuum is compatible for use with the spilled materials. Standard wet/dry vacuums are often not suitable for these types of liquids.

For small spills – for example, spills in laboratories – neutralizing is another option. If spills are to be neutralized, be sure to allow time in drills and other non-emergency situations for responders to learn to use the neutralizers properly. Many neutralizing agents create a heat reaction that could compound response efforts.

Completely cleaning up a spill also involves collecting all of the spent materials used to combat the spill. Absorbents take on the characteristics of the liquids that they have absorbed and should be handled accordingly. Disposable PPE, tools and other items that are not going to be reused should also be collected and handled properly.

Bubble Bath

Final cleanup also involves restoring or cleaning the spill area, tools and responders. Often referred to as “decon,” decontamination procedures are required under OSHA’s HAZWOPER standard [29 CFR 1910.120(k)].

Decontamination lines should be established and ready to function when a response is initiated. This is especially important if there are victims in the spill area who will need to be decontaminated prior to medical triage or treatment.

Drills should incorporate decontamination procedures so that everyone is familiar with the process. Both wet and dry decontamination methods should be tested to determine which is most practical for given scenarios.

Always Ready

Selecting and storing proper PPE, absorbents and other response equipment takes time, space and money, but having the materials on-hand can mean the difference between a minor incident and a major catastrophe.

Simply stocking supplies, however, is not enough. Train responders to use the materials provided, and allow time for regular drills to practice spill response plans so that they will be prepared and ready to respond.

These practices will help ensure that when a spill does occur, responders can perform their duties safely, and the effects of the spill will, hopefully, be kept to a minimum.

Do you know which federal, state and local reports to file after a spill?

Go to Spill Response Part 5: Who Should I Report a Spill to and How Do I Meet Spill Release Requirements? to find out what reports you might have to file as part of your spill response plan.