OHS Canada Magazine

Preparing for Accidental Releases

October 15, 2018
By Jason Contant

Leaving worker safety to chance in environments where spills are possible is not an option. For those tasked with clean-up and containment, a well-thought-out spill response plan is in order. But a plan only takes safety so far; it must be complemented by work procedures and gear appropriate to help contain, clean up and dispose of spills.

For companies in the market for spill-response products, a good starting point is to analyze the work environment and identify any tasks that may end in spills. From there, other factors that need to be considered include the following: the flammability of the spilled product (if applicable); if a chemical can be neutralized; secondary containment issues (such as spill pallets or berms that can be used to help prevent a substance from spreading); type, characteristics and chemical-resistance capabilities of protective equipment (such as gloves) included in spill kits; methods to minimize the environmental impact of a spill; and a review of procedures to prevent releases and improve spill response.

The staggering number of workplace chemicals and the breadth of consequences that industrial spills can produce make choosing the right combination of equipment and products a tall order. Mike Dodd, customer service supervisor for Can-Ross Environmental Services Ltd. in Oakville, Ontario, recommends narrowing the options by reviewing which needs must be met.

Spill kits help contain spills within the first few minutes and come in various forms and sizes. Gator International in Penticton, British Columbia offers both vehicular spill kits, which are compact enough to fit behind or under a seat, and kits more suited to industrial environments. Vehicle kits provide users with containers for spilled substances, pads to absorb most hydrocarbons, a sock made of a 100 per cent cellulose material for all types of liquid, a chemical-resistant dust mask, chemical-resistant safety goggles, neoprene on latex gloves, disposal bags with tie wraps, a whist broom and dust pan, and assorted wooden plugs.

The bigger and more complicated the spill, the more enhanced the kit’s contents. Gator’s “national guard” kit, for example, includes among its contents a poly drum with a lid and lock ring, a box of latex chemical gloves, coveralls, eyewash, goggles, a broom, an alarm horn, duct tape, a first aid kit and a bag of assorted wooden plugs.

With regard to liquids, it may be possible to neutralize or absorb the liquid depending on the type spilled. One option is to sprinkle a granular absorbent onto the spill and sweep it up; another is to soak up the spill using a different type of absorbent, such as a pad that captures and contains the material within its fibres. The latter option works like a sponge and is available in many grades, with fibres ranging from fine to coarse.

“The fibres are twined together and the coarser that twine is, the less it is going to hold because [oil, for instance] will kind of wick through,” Dodd explains. A more tightly knit fine fibre will hold more.

Bill Robins, president of Cartier Chemicals Ltd. in Montreal, says there is a downside to using absorbents to clean up flammable or other spills as opposed to neutralizing them. Typically, acids and bases can be neutralized, but not flammable materials. Absorbents — one option being polymeric-type sheets — may be applied to the spill, but they drip all over the place when they are lifted since they work like sponges.

Then there are neutralizers. The rule of thumb is “if you have an acid spill, you use something that is alkaline; if you have an alkaline spill, you use something that is acid,” Robins says. If an acid spills, “mild alkaline materials, even something like bicarbonate soda, could be used, but it is messy.”

Lauri Solsberg, president of Counterspil Research Inc. in North Vancouver, reports that soda ash is often applied to acids, with spill kits containing colour-indicator systems to demonstrate when neutralization has reached a safe level.

By using dedicated neutralizers, as opposed to the “old system” of throwing a bag of material onto a spill, worker safety can be enhanced, Robins argues.Neutralization is an effective and practical way to handle spills of 205 litres or less. “Every agent you might spill has a neutralizer that is relatively optimal for dealing with it safely,” he adds.


Once a spill has been contained and cleaned up, it is then time to consider any secondary containment products — such as pallets or berms — designed to prevent hazardous materials from spreading during transport, storage or unloading.

Consider a forklift hitting a 55-gallon (208-litre) drum of hazardous liquid. A spill pallet could be used to prevent liquid from entering the factory drain, because it is contained within a sump inside the pallet, says Patricia Maruszak, manager of marketing and communications for Justrite Manufacturing Company in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Pallets are usually constructed of steel or polyethylene, and the latter is capable of withstanding “the toughest environments,” making them “nearly impervious to chemical attack.” Although steel pallets are sometimes preferred in workplaces like steel mills, railyards, naval stations, shipyards and the military, Maruszak points out that the “real” driving factor in the marketplace is price, with steel typically costing about two to two-and-a-half times more than polyethylene. “From a functional standpoint, they work the same and both are durable.”

Another necessary check when storing, handling or cleaning up a spill is personal protective equipment. Knowing which classes of chemicals workers will handle — be they fuels, acids or caustics — will go a long way in helping employers understand the type of gloves and spill kits needed to get the job done, says Joe Geng, vice-president of Superior Glove Works Ltd. in Acton, Ontario.

Material safety data sheets (MSDSs) can be a good starting point, says Michael Everett, general manager of Showa-Best Glove Inc. in Coaticook, Quebec. If the solvent is a mixture of toluene, acetone and another chemical, one glove might work for two chemicals, but not the third,, Everett says. In that case, the user should go with gear designed to protect against the most dangerous chemical.

Chemical-resistant gloves are made from a variety of materials such as natural rubber, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), nitrile, neoprene, butyl and butyl-viton — all of which have their pros and cons, Geng notes. Nitrile, a synthetic rubber, provides a wide range of chemical resistance and is a safer bet for fuels like diesel and gasoline.

Rubber is flexible, comfortable and inexpensive “and it works fairly well with some types of acids,” says Everett, but not very well at all with hydrocarbons, oils or greases. For these, PVC serves as a better fit, as it offers a bit more chemical resistance.

Neoprene, for its part, provides good chemical resistance for acids, caustics and hydrocarbons. It is chlorine-based, making it an option for workplaces dealing with flammable chemicals, Everett suggests. The downside may be that neoprene does not provide strong abrasion resistance.

Butyl and butyl-viton gloves are recommended for major “contaminations that are considered seriously harmful or potentially fatal,” Geng says. This option, albeit expensive and less comfortable, offers a broader range of chemical resistance than nitrile or neoprene.

The lifespan of gloves varies greatly depending on their type and the chemicals used. “In certain chemicals, some gloves will only last a few minutes; for another chemical, they can last for hours,” Geng says.

Jason Contant was the former editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.