Home / News & Views

Chemical spills are not rare occurrences in workplaces and universities, even with secure chemical storage solutions, proper handling, and a prudent chemical spill program in place. Accidents can still happen, and so a good response plan can be vital in minimising the damage from a chemical spill.

Delayed chemical spill containment can mean a larger headache for the workplace or institution, as it increases the magnitude of the potential damage chemical spills can cause – to humans, the workplace itself, and the environment. Larger spills require more time, energy, and resources to clean up, thus increasing the potential effects of a chemical spill.

This post highlights the main significant effects on people, structures, and the wider environment associated with chemical spills. You’ll also come to understand the main steps your organisation can take to ensure adequate chemical clean up with a thorough spill response plan.

Main Effects of Chemical Spills

The main detrimental effects of a chemical spill can be broken down into three broad categories:

Human Effects
Different chemicals can pose different threats to people:

  • Toxic or poisonous gases can cause severe illness and even fatalities in some cases. The greater the concentration of toxic chemicals spilled or leaked, the more potential for significant loss of life.
  • Corrosive chemicals can cause severe burns when touched, damage eyesight, and cause harm to the respiratory tract.
  • Some chemical spills have a delayed carcinogenic effect, such as asbestos inhalation causing lung cancer years after the initial exposure.
  • Flammable chemicals can also cause obvious damage to humans through fires or explosions.

Structural Effects
Chemical spills can cause significant damage to buildings such as offices and laboratories:

  • Fires can cause severe structural damage to buildings, and in particularly critical instances, the complete collapse of a structure due to degradation of its foundation from high temperatures.
  • Certain toxic chemicals can leave buildings unusable for extended periods of time until the spilt chemical has been thoroughly removed.

Environmental Effects
Last but not least, chemical spills can have major environmental impacts:

  • Spilled oil and other chemicals can physically damage marine life with run-off contamination in the water. Aside from the initial environmental impacts and threats to sea life, oil spills can have devastating long-term effects by polluting the animals’ food sources and habitats.
  • Spilled chemicals can also run-off into soil, causing severe ecological damage and making such areas inhabitable for flora and fauna.

In general, all the negative effects of chemical spills can be amplified and even caused by slow chemical spill responses. The larger the spread of the spilled chemical, the worse the potential damage, making quick and safe spill containment a priority.

A Quick and Effective Spill Response Plan

Organisations should take the following steps to ensure a prompt and safe chemical spill response that minimises the impact of all chemical spills.

Assessing Safety
An important factor in swift chemical clean-up is the ability of employees to understand the severity of a spill and assess the safety of the spill site. If an immediate threat is posed, the area in which the spill occurred should be evacuated immediately. Furthermore, if a large spill is too difficult to clean with standard chemical clean-up kits, fire and medical personnel should be notified as soon as possible. For incidental spills, immediately initiate standard chemical clean up procedures.

PPE Equipment
Anyone involved in chemical clean up should immediately put on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) appropriate for the chemical and the hazard(s) it presents. In some instances, a respirator must be used as part of your PPE.

Stop the Spill
Minimising the spread of any chemical spill is vital in mitigating the risk of further damage. The most important thing is to stop the flow of liquid—if a container with a hazardous chemical inside has fallen over, set the container upright; otherwise, put a cap or putty over the opening from which a chemical is leaking. Additionally, shut down any sources of heat or ignition for flammable chemical spills or leaks.

Use a Spill Kit
After stopping or controlling the chemical flow, contain the spill using a spill kit, including absorbent pads and pillows. Ensure pads and other spill kit components that have soaked up chemicals are correctly disposed of in hazardous waste bags or containers. Once the site is clear of chemical spillage, clean the spill area with soap and water to remove any chemical residue.

The importance of dealing with chemical spills quickly cannot be overstated. Any prudent contingency plan for dealing with chemical spills must not be limited to merely preventing spills from occurring—accidents happen, and when they do, prompt chemical clean up can save lives.

Prevent Chemical Accidents

Note that chemical storage is a vital aspect of reducing the risk of chemical spills, and chemicals should always be stored in appropriate chemical storage containers.

When a chemical spill happens, a swift response involving the use of spill trays and bunds can contain such spills and prevent them from causing significant damage.

At Safety Storage Systems we have over 20 years of experience with handling and storing hazardous chemicals. If you are concerned about the chemical storage practices in your facility, reach out to one of our experts or check out some of our other articles.

Updated June 2022.