Cleaning up chemical spills in the laboratory

In spite of everyone’s best efforts, accidents happen in the laboratory. Glassware is dropped or chipped, fingers are stabbed by sharps, and chemicals are spilled on the bench or floor. If handled properly, a chemical spill can be nothing more than a slight nuisance. However, if not quickly and carefully contained a chemical spill can pose a significant safety hazard. Today we will discuss some of the fundamentals of containing and cleaning chemical spills in the classroom.

A simulated chemical spill is staged at a lake.

Know the hazards:

The most important component of chemical safety is knowing the hazards of the chemicals used in the laboratory. This includes chemicals actively involved in ongoing experiments as well as those stored around the room. It is important that the instructor understands any inherent dangers from each chemical, as well as any potential reactions between chemicals. In addition, before using any new component it is necessary to understand the consequences of any potential spills or other accidental exposures.

Write up a spill response procedure:

According to the American Chemical Society, every laboratory space should include a written chemical spill response procedure. Everyone involved in lab activities, including instructors, students, and assistants, should be aware of the procedures. Importantly, the plan should be reviewed regularly to ensure that it is still correct and up-to-date. This prepared plan should include a listing of the appropriate PPE, explanation of use, and storage locations. This includes safety equipment and spill cleanup materials, fire suppression equipment, and first aid materials.

Act quickly, but safely, when spills occur:

Once in place, the chemical spill response plan should provide a blueprint for action during a spill. However, it’s important to act quickly, and safely. Even a small spill can be hazardous, so instructors should not be afraid to request assistance from others. The first step often involves moving everyone away from the site of the spill and evaluating the situation. Ask yourself what risks are posed by the spill, how easily can it be contained and cleaned, and if you need assistance.

The most important safety concern should always involve human health effects. This can include exposure to chemicals on skin or clothing, inhalation risks from volatile vapors, or risks of combustion. Any chemical with unknown risks should be treated as hazardous until outside assistance can be identified.

Chemical spills should also be evaluated for potential environmental threats. Many chemicals can have disastrous effects on plants and animals, which means ensuring that nothing is washed into sewers or discharged into bodies of water.

Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant Laboratory. ACWA –

Cleaning up the mess

Once a spill has been evaluated for hazards it’s time to get our hands (metaphorically) dirty. Ensure that everyone involved has proper protective equipment, including goggles, masks, gloves, lab coats, and anything else that might be needed. Then, follow the steps below:

  1. Prevent the spread of any dust, vapor, or liquid – keep the spill as contained as possible.
  2. Absorb the liquid using chemical absorbents. This can include vermiculite, cat litter, or other materials. Special absorbents might be required for certain chemicals (this should have been identified in the safety data sheets and noted in your response plan).
  3. Collect and contain the materials in a bucket, bag, or another container as needed. This can involve scooping, sweeping, or moping the area. Be sure to label the waste containers clearly! Dispose of the waste as required, following instructions from any health and safety officers.
  4. Decontaminate the area and any affected surfaces and equipment. This often involves standard cleaning chemicals, mopping the floor, and ensuring that the air is free from hazardous vapors.

Chemical spills are never fun, but if you have a well-constructed safety plan they do not have to ruin the day. Take steps to ensure that hazards are identified ahead of time, that everyone is trained, and that chemicals are stored in ways to minimize the chances of a spill! If you ever have safety concerns please contact the chemical supplier. All Edvotek safety data sheets can be found here.

Cover image: Oil Spill – Ellenm1 – Flickr –

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