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Environmental Health and Safety

Spill Response

Despite the best effort of researchers to practice safe science in the laboratory, accidents resulting in the release of chemicals will occur. It is essential that laboratory personnel have a spill response plan which includes appropriate procedures and materials to adequately contain and cleanup a spill.

The following procedures should be used as a guide to help laboratory personnel design an effective spill control plan for their laboratory.

  • Individuals should be familiar with the properties and hazards of the materials with which they work.
  • In the event of a chemical spill, the individual(s) who caused the spill is responsible for prompt and proper clean-up.
  • Improper clean-up of a chemical spill may result in injury, illness, fire, a release to the environment or property damage.
  • Planning for chemical spills is essential.
  • Before beginning work with chemicals, one should be sure that he or she has adequate training for cleaning up small spills, and that the appropriate types and amounts of spill clean-up materials and personal protective equipment are immediately available.


Scope and Application

Principal investigators, employees and students working in research labs should be aware that required safety training for lab workers includes emergency response training mandated by the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard and the OSHA Standard for Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (Hazwoper). Emergency training applies to building evacuation procedures during fires and explosions, recognition of system alarms and appropriate action in the event of spills of hazardous materials in the lab. Lab workers must receive training to distinguish between the types of spills they can handle on their own and those spills which are classified as “MAJOR.” Major spills dictate the need for outside help.

Who cleans up:

  • Janitors and maintenance workers 
    Only allowed to clean up their own chemical spills.
  • USC-Police/Campus Safety personnel 
    Trained to make the proper notifications, but not to clean up chemical spills.
  • Lab workers 
    Qualified to clean up spills that are “incidental and/or minor”. OSHA defines an incidental spill as one that does not pose a significant safety or health hazard to employees in the immediate vicinity or have the potential to become an emergency within a short time frame. The period that constitutes a short time is not defined.

Lab workers can handle incidental spills because they are expected to be familiar with the hazards of the chemicals they normally handle. If the spill exceeds the scope of the lab workers’ experience, training or willingness to respond, they must be able to determine that the spill cannot be dealt with internally.

Emergency assistance is provided by EHS or an outside agency. Spills requiring the involvement of individuals outside the lab are those exceeding the “normal” exposure. Spills in this category are those which have truly become emergency situations. 

Pre-planning is essential to safely and properly handling a spill. Individuals working with chemicals should consider the following items to prepare themselves for spill control and clean-up:

  • Review Material Safety Data Sheets or other references for recommended spill clean-up methods and materials, and the need for personal protective equipment (e.g., respirators, gloves, etc.).
  • Acquire sufficient quantities and types of spill control materials to contain any spills than can be reasonably anticipated.
  • Acquire recommended personal protective equipment and training in its proper use. EHS offers training in the proper use of personal protective equipment, including respirators, gloves, and eye and face protection.
  • Place spill control materials in a readily accessible location, close to the areas where chemicals are used or stored.
  • Immediately alert others in the area, including the supervisor. Evacuate, if necessary.
  • If there is a fire or medical attention is needed, contact USC Police at 7-9111.
  • Attend to anyone who may be contaminated. Contaminated clothing must be removed immediately and the skin flushed with water for no less than fifteen minutes. Clothing must be laundered before reuse.
  • If a volatile, flammable material is spilled, immediately warn others in the area, control sources of ignition and ventilate the area.
  • Don personal protective equipment, as appropriate to the hazards. Refer to your Chemical Hygiene Plan, the Material Safety Data Sheet or other references available in your laboratory for information.
  • Contact USC Police at 7-911 if the spill is a MAJOR one, if there has been a release to the environment or if assistance is needed.
  • Consider the need for respiratory protection. The use of a respirator or self-contained breathing apparatus requires specialized training and medical surveillance. Never enter a contaminated atmosphere without protection or use a respirator without training. If respiratory protection is needed and no trained personnel are available, call USC-Police at 7-9111 and then call EHS at 777-5269. If respiratory protection is available, be sure there is another person outside the spill area in communication or in sight, in case of emergency.
  • Protect floor drains or other means for environmental release. Spill socks and absorbents may be placed around drains, as needed.
    • Loose spill control materials should be distributed over the entire spill area, working from the outside, circling to the center. This reduces the chance of splash or spreading of the spilled chemical.
    • Bulk absorbents and many spill pillows do not work on hydrofluoric acid.
    • POLYZORB products and their equivalent will handle hydrofluoric acid. Many neutralizers for acids and bases have a color change indicator to show when neutralization is complete.
    • Several materials for cleaning up mercury spills are available in chemical catalogs, safety supply catalogs and at some of the science and engineering stockrooms. Broken thermometers, gauges or other mercury-containing materials, may be placed in a plastic bag or glass or metal container, and sealed.
  • When the spilled materials have been absorbed, use a brush and scoop (spark-resistant, if flammable materials are involved) to place materials in an appropriate container. Polyethylene bags may be used for small spills. Five gallon pails or 20 gallon drums with polyethylene liners may be appropriate for larger spills.
  • Complete a hazardous waste tag, identifying the material as Spill Debris involving XYZ Chemical and affix the sticker to the container or bag. Remember the use of an absorbent does not alter the chemical properties of the chemical. Contact the Hazardous Waste Manager at 7-2839 for advice on storage and packaging for disposal.
  • Place the container in a hood, or other properly-ventilated area, until the next chemical waste pick-up.
  • Decontaminate surfaces involved in the spill using a mild detergent and water, as appropriate.
  • Report all spills to your supervisor or the principal investigator.

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