OHS Canada Magazine

Responding to Spills

October 15, 2018
By Jean Lian

On February 24, two transport trucks in Toronto collided on highway 401, spilling diesel onto the road. In October 2017, a chemical spill at a recycling facility in the Greater Toronto Area saw the decontamination of more than 60 employees of Canada Fibers Ltd. These incidents speak to the diverse nature of hazardous materials releases that can occur in transportation and industrial facilities.

“There are 30,000 chemicals used commercially. Most of these can be subject to spills or accidental releases,” says Jamie Button, national sales manager for Solvent Products Corp, a division of Brady Canada in Toronto.

Button cites equipment failure, human error and corrosion as the top three reasons for spills in an industrial setting. With respect to transportation spills in Canada, just over half of those incidents involved oil or petroleum products.

“The products that are transported more frequently are the ones that are subject to spills. That is why you see such a high percentage of spills occurring are oil and petrol chemicals,” Button says.

Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), which responds to petroleum-based spills on Canada’s West Coast, says the most common spills are diesel, bunker C and crude oil. Michael Lowry, WCMRC’s communications manager in Burnaby, British Columbia, says there are different types of equipment for different types of oils, but “the principles of response are consistent: containment, protection and recovery.”

Safety is a critical part when responding to spills of all types and sizes. “The initial information gathered about the spill will determine on a preliminary basis if it is safe to commence the response,” he adds.

Other considerations that Lowry cites include the availability of safety data sheets for the product spilled, the operating environment (which include weather and marine conditions), fire or explosion risk, the presence of harmful gases, slips, trips and falls and manual handling of equipment.


For any response plan to be effective, “you have to gauge your spill response to the type of chemicals you are dealing with,” Button says.

The nature of the substance released also determines the types of remediation products used and the protective equipment required. “There are literally thousands and thousands of different types of products that are available on the market,” says Jeremy Slater, regional sales manager for western Canada with Acklands Grainger in Vancouver.

The permeation factor for protective clothing dictates how long the apparel will shield the wearer before the released substance permeates the membrane of the protective layer. A caustic chemical would require the donning of a Class-B-rated suit that is fully encapsulated, “because you can’t come into contact or breathe any of the vapour associated with the product, or it would be immediately dangerous to life and health,” Slater adds.

The location of the spill can create additional challenges. A spill that occurs “indoor in a warehouse is obviously easier to clean up than something that is out in the environment, on rough water or it is cold,” Button says.

Slater agrees, recommending a 10-step process that responders should follow:

  1. Risk assessment: Evaluate the type of material spilled and identify the source.
  2. Protective Clothing: Wear the appropriate protective gear for the situation. If the source or the material is not identifiable, assume the worst.
  3. Containment: Contain the liquid and seal drains.
  4. Plug the source: Close valves, rotate punctured drums and plug leaks where it is possible and safe to do so.
  5. Begin clean up: Use sorbents to absorb spilt liquids.
  6. Contact authorities: Report the spill to the proper legal authorities and fill out all necessary reports.
  7. Dispose used materials: As absorbent materials take on the characteristics of whatever they absorb, dispose used absorbents and spilt liquids in accordance with local laws.
  8. Decontaminate: Clean all tools and reusable materials properly before reuse.
  9. Restock materials: Replace absorbent materials and safety equipment used in any clean-up operation.
  10. Review contingency plans and procedures: This should be conducted after each spill.

If the substance involves a hazardous material, it is a good idea to engage a trained professional to assist in the selection of proper remediation products and design or implement an effective spill-response plan. “It is not something to be taken on your own,” Slater cautions.

Acklands Grainger advises their clients on a spill-response program that is compliant with regulations and ensure the safety of workers and responders alike. A trained professional will examine the facility, focusing on areas where there are containerized liquids, drums, lines and hoses to determine if the substances are stored in reservoir tanks, controlled by valves or kept in high- or lowpressure containers.

The topography of the location in which a spill occurs or can occur is also relevant. Factors to look at include whether the release took place in an enclosed area or outdoor, are there berms involved, is the area sloped adequately, the ease of ingress and egress for responders and is there a need to prevent the fluid from going into drains or exiting the contained area and create a problem elsewhere.

One of the benefits of seeking professional help is access to a consolidated response plan that indicates the types and quantity of remediation products needed. “If you don’t know what you are doing, you will end up with too much stuff and not knowing what to use for which,” Slater suggests. “We can help you come up with that plan and how and where each of these items are used, and consolidate that down into a way that is not just cost effective, but also do the task it is meant to.”

One common oversight is the failure to restock remediation products after an incident. Slater says restocking remediation products is important, “because the next time it happens and you don’t have anything there, you are in trouble.”


An emerging trend in spill response that Slater observes is the move towards preventing them from happening in the first place, or containing them if it has already occurred. One product that can make a difference is Brady Canada’s RuptureSeal™, which provides a stop-gap measure by sealing small-to-normal sized holes in seconds with a silicone plug fastened mechanically over the rupture. It is designed for quick deployment so that workers can vacate the scene as soon as possible.

Slater says RuptureSeal™ is commonly used by firefighters in incidents involving an oil tank or truck that has turned over and has a rupture on its side, spilling fluid onto the road. “This device comes in a couple of shapes and sizes, and you could insert it and pull it tight against the crack and seals it in seconds,” he explains. After the rupture has been plugged, responders can focus on cleaning up the spill.

“Typically, what you are going to have is socks or booms to create a contained perimeter,” Button says. “Once they contain that, they can clean up by throwing a granular absorbent or spill-control pads down.”

Another trend is the shift in consumer preference towards granular absorbents that are natural and safe for the environment and workers from a respiratory standpoint. This trend is spurred in part by the United States’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s final rule issued in 2016, which limits exposure to respirable crystalline silica to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.

“We are seeing a larger push in OSHA to pass legislation with respect to silica content in granular absorbents,” Button says. Half of the market still uses granulated products, which can contain crystalline silica, a classified carcinogen, to clean up spills. Diatomaceous earth or clay, which is 80 to 90 percent silica, is one of the most common compositions of granulated absorbents. “Canadian employers have awareness of that legislation and want things that are more efficient with respect to cleaning up and environmentally friendly.”

Last March, Brady announced the release of its new SpillFix® Granular Absorbents, which is completely natural, produces no carcinogens or dust and has more than four times the absorption power of clay granular. This absorbent, which is made of 100% recycled material, is effective in absorbing hydrocarbons, water-based fluids and most chemicals. Apart from being lightweight and easy to deploy, it is also certified safe for landfills.

Brady offers a range of sorbents that include those that are universal, soaking up everything including water, and those that absorb oil or chemicals only. It also carries a product that is static resistant to prevent sparking.

After cleaning up a spill, companies need to decontaminate tools and equipment that have come into contact with the substance. “And that again comes back to the nature of the chemical spilled,” Slater says.

Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.