Laboratories that deal with chemicals on a daily basis are likely to have to deal with spills from time to time. The majority of accidents will be relatively minor, and they will usually pose no risk to human health. However, some chemicals have the potential to cause serious damage to skin or eyes, and they often have the potential to release harmful vapours that can be breathed in. Accidents can be distressing for the people involved, and that can affect their ability to think rationally, so it is vital that a thorough and well-communicated plan of action is in place. A detailed emergency procedure will help to minimise the disruption caused – and any potential risks to health.
Prepare for the Worst
Even the safest and most organised laboratories can be affected by a serious chemical spill, so it is vital that a structured plan is in place beforehand. This plan should be posted on a staff noticeboard for all to see, and the individual steps such a plan includes should be communicated at health and safety meetings. A ‘spill kit’ should be bought or assembled, and it should be stored in an area accessible to all staff. The emergency kit should contain protective gloves, eye-ware, cleaning materials and a number of other items of equipment designed to clear up a spill as quickly as possible. The kit should be checked weekly to ensure it is fully stocked, and staff should be trained on its use. It is also essential that staff are aware of the location of fire extinguishers, emergency showers, eye wash and all available exits.
The first task after a spill has occurred involves assessing it to ascertain its severity. An extremely large spill or one involving a particularly hazardous chemical should be treated as an emergency; spills that can lead to fires, explosions or chemical exposure can all be described as emergency situations. In the event of a severe spill, the entire area should be evacuated immediately. It may be necessary to evacuate the entire building if there is a chance of toxic fumes spreading through heating or air-conditioning channels. Where spills are deemed minor, it is usually prudent for a trained member of staff to clean them up immediately.
Dealing with Serious Spills
Large spills or those involving toxic chemicals should be reported to the local fire brigade, and the local office of the Health and Safety Executive should also be informed. Everyone in the immediate area should be informed of the spill, and they should be asked to leave in an orderly fashion. All ignition sources should be switched off, including lights, burners and anything with a naked flame. If it is practical, it is prudent to switch off all electrical equipment as well. However, if the chemical is known to release toxic vapours, these tasks should be left to fire fighters who will have specialist breathing equipment. If someone has been unfortunate enough to get splashed by the chemical, the affected area should be treated with running water for at least 15 minutes. The emergency services should be called, and the relevant COSSH data sheet should be given to the attending medical professional. All doors and access to the affected area should be locked, and warning signs should be posted to warn others from entering.
Cleaning the Affected Area
If a spill is relatively small, it may be best to tackle it immediately. The personal protective equipment contained in the spill kit should contain a mask, gloves and eye goggles as a minimum, and they should be worn throughout the cleaning process. The absorbent materials used to clean the chemical spill should be placed into a plastic waste bag and labelled with a hazard tag. The waste should then be stored in the designated area for chemicals until specialist disposal operatives can take it away.
Laboratories are dynamic working environments, and the risk of a serious spill simply can’t be removed completely. Regular communication, staff training and a robust spill policy should keep people safe when the inevitable spills occur.