8 Steps to Handling a laboratory Chemical Spill


Careful handling, storing and good laboratory practices in the use of laboratory chemicals will significantly reduce the occurrence of spills.  However, despite laboratory best practice, chemical spills are not uncommon.  Luckily, most chemical spills can be safely cleaned up by trained laboratory personnel.  When a chemical spill does occur, it is essential that you are aware of the steps necessary to manage the spills carefully and efficiently.


1. Preparation

The most crucial step to safely and efficiently handle a chemical spill is preparation. The implementation of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will provide the “How to” guide of dealing with a chemical spill.  Using information from the Material Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), the SOPs for each chemical should list: 1) the health and environmental hazards; 2) the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be worn; 3) first-aid procedures; 3) clean-up procedures; and 4) Emergency procedures, if required.  The SOPs should be stored in an easily accessible location in the laboratory.

An essential step in preparation is ensuring that all laboratory personnel have received the required training in the correct handling and storage of all chemicals used in the lab; are trained to safely use laboratory equipment and are confident in managing chemical spills.

Finally, the laboratory should be stocked with a spill kit which contains the appropriate equipment and reagents for cleaning up chemical spills.  The spill kits should be strategically placed in easily accessible locations in the laboratory.  The kits should contain absorbents, neutralizer compounds, PPE, waste disposal bags and/or bins.


2. Assessment and identification of the spill

All chemical spills are different.  A knowledgeable assessment of the hazard level depends on several factors including: identification of the actual chemical, quantities of material spilled, location where the spill occurred (including the type of surface, nearby heat or flame sources) and the amount of ventilation in the area.

Chemical spills can be classified as either:

  • Minor spill– where the chemical does not pose an immediate risk to health and does not involve chemical contamination to the body.  Most chemical spills in the laboratory are classified as a minor spill that can be cleaned up by laboratory personnel.
  • Major spill-where the chemical potentially poses an immediate risk to health (toxicity or corrosiveness), or a high risk of fire or explosion (including reactivity to air or water).

The classification and identification of the spill and referral to the SOPs will efficiently determine the level of response required to contain the spill.



3. Communication

First and foremost, it is important to remain calm and ensure that all laboratory personnel are moved away from the area while the appropriate response is determined.

In the case of a minor chemical spill that poses no health threat, laboratory personnel in the immediate area of the spill should be alerted.  As outlined in the relevant SOP, the appropriate laboratory manager, safety officer, safety team and/or emergency services should be notified immediately.

This article will concentrate on the eight steps involved in managing a minor chemical spill.  However, in the unlikely event that a major chemical spill has occurred, the laboratory and/or building should be evacuated, and emergency services notified.  If laboratory personnel were contaminated the nearest emergency eyewash or safety shower needs to be located, any contaminated clothing removed, and all areas of the body flushed with copious amounts of water.


4. Control and Containment of Spill

The first step in cleaning up a chemical spill should involve the control and containment of the spill.  Before commencing the clean-up of a chemical spill, all personnel must be wearing the appropriate PPE including safety goggles, gloves and long-sleeve lab coats.

  • The source of the spill should be identified and contained by turning off taps or by stopping the main source for any spills caused by leaks.
  • The spill should be contained from spreading by making a barrier using absorbent materials around the outside edges of the spill.
  • If the substance is volatile or can produce vapours or airborne dusts, close the lab door and increase ventilation to the area, if possible.


5. Clean-Up

For most chemicals not listed below, clean-up of minor spills can be handled using the appropriate spill kit or absorbent material such as vermiculite, dry sand, or cat litter. The residue should be collected and placed in the appropriate chemical waste disposal container.


Handling of acid/base spills should use the appropriate kit to neutralize and absorb the inorganic acids and bases.  Acids can be neutralized with soda ash or sodium bicarbonate whereas bases can be neutralized with citric acid or ascorbic acid.  Following neutralization, the pH of the spill should be checked to ensure that the spill has been neutralized.  In most cases, once an acid or base spill has been neutralized, the spill can be mopped up and rinsed down the drain. Otherwise the spill should be absorbed using the appropriate absorbent material which can then be disposed in the chemical waste container.

Biological Spills

PC2 laboratories deal with many biohazards including body fluid (such as blood, urine), tissues or organs, cell cultures and microorganisms (such as E.coli).  The appropriate PPE is particularly important when cleaning up biological spills to prevent contact with contaminated surfaces and protect from exposure to splattered materials.

  • The spill is covered with paper towels or absorbent pads.
  • Decontaminate using a freshly prepared 10% (vol./vol. w/water) dilution of household bleach or hospital-grade disinfectant- careful to avoid splashing.
  • Allow to sit for 15 minutes.
  • Use paper towels or other absorbent material to wipe up the spill.
  • Further clean the spill area with fresh towels soaked in disinfectant.
  • Dispose of the towels and/or absorbent material in the biohazardous waste container.

Flammable Liquids

Before commencing handling of the flammable liquid spill, it is important to ensure the removal of all potential sources of ignition. Vapours tend to accumulate near the ground and it is essential that the area is properly ventilated.

Flammable liquid spills are best cleaned-up with the use of spill pads that are backed with a vapor barrier.  Flammable liquids will normally be disposed by incineration, and as such clean-up procedures should avoid using inert absorbents such as cat litter. All absorbent materials used in the clean-up should be disposed of in heavy-duty poly bags, which are labelled.

Mercury Spills

Mercury spills are normally considered minor, nonhazardous spills unless the spill occurs in a poorly ventilated area.  The area where the mercury spill has occurred should be cordoned off to prevent further dispersal of the spill.

The mercury spill can be cleaned-up using a special absorbent that amalgamates the smaller mercury droplets.  Use of this method allows the mercury to be collected and immediately ready for use again.

Radioactive spills

Absorbent material (such as paper towels) should be placed over the radioactive spill.  Using forceps, the contaminated towels can be gathered and placed in a radioactive waste disposal bag. The spill area, hands, shoes and other PPE should be monitored for contamination with a Geiger counter. The clean-up is repeated until the contamination is no longer detectable.

Bear in mind that extra caution needs to be exercised to prevent the spreading of the radiation beyond the spill area during the clean-up.

Volatile Toxic Compounds

The use of spill pillows or similar absorbent material are usually the preferred method for cleaning up volatile chemicals as they do not have the dust associated with cat litter or vermiculite. Place all used absorbent materials in heavy-duty poly bags, which are sealed and labelled.


6. Disposal

The neutralized spill residue or the absorbent should be scooped or swept and placed into a plastic bucket or other container. The residues from dry powders or liquids which have absorbed should be double bagged. Following cleaning up the chemical spill, the residues/wastes should be placed in the appropriate hazardous waste bin.  All clean-up materials must be separate from normal trash.  Descriptive labels outlining the type of waste should be placed on each container.


7. Decontamination

For most chemical spills, conventional cleaning products will be able to provide adequate decontamination. Specialized laboratory detergents are available that provide a higher level of decontamination and cleaning.  In addition, ventilation of the area where the spill occurred may be necessary.


8. Documentation and Feedback

After the chemical spill has been cleaned-up and the area decontaminated, incident documentation should be completed.  All personnel involved in the spill and clean-up should be debriefed, lessons learned identified and procedures reviewed and improved.

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