Large biological and chemical spills are not a common occurrence in the laboratory. That’s a good thing, but when they do occur, they can create a very dangerous situation. It is vital that staff know how to handle such events even though they may not be commonplace. I was on site when a recent large chemical spill was discovered, and I was surprised at the reaction from team members in the facility- it did not go well. Teaching staff how to handle a spill is one thing, but the importance of practicing by using spill drills cannot be overestimated.
Some facilities differentiate between large and small spills. They may have an emergency number to call for a hazardous spill response team. Other smaller facilities simply don’t have that in place. Either way, it’s important for laboratory professionals to know they are the experts about the biological and chemical materials they use, and they need to be in charge as the experts when a spill situation needs to be managed.
Most laboratory spills can be managed using a standardized step-wise process known as the S.P.I.L.L.E.D. procedure. I don’t usually ask lab staff to memorize the acronym, but having the information contained on a poster with the lab spill kits can make a clean-up procedure go smoothly.
S = Secure the Site – Make sure no one walks through the area where a spill has occurred. It could be a dangerous situation if a hazardous chemical is spilled, and you would never want someone slipping in the area or tracking the spilled material to another area.
P = Protect Yourself – Arm yourself with the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In a lab spill event, this would mean using a lab coat, gloves, and face protection to prevent accidental splashes.
I = Inspect the Spill – Look to see what was spilled. If it is a hazardous chemical, is there a concern about fumes? Obtain a Safety Data Sheet to see if section 6 will give any special information about handling the accidental release or spill of that chemical. Consider other spill concerns such as broken glass or possible ignition sources if flammable material is involved.
L = Lay Down a Barrier – If the spill is large and spreading, lay down spill pillows or booms designed to contain a flow of liquids. Surround the spill area with these materials. Sometimes, the use of an emergency shower can create the need for a barrier to be made.
L = Lay Down Absorbents – No matter the size of the spill, the next step is to place any absorbent powders, granules or clean-up pads to soak up the spilled material. If the absorbent is also a neutralizer, make sure you allow the necessary time for neutralization to occur.
E = Extract the Mess – Use implements to pick up the materials used for stopping and absorbing the spill.
D = Dispose of the Waste – Properly dispose of all materials involved with the spill clean-up. If there was glass involved, be sure to use a sharps container. Biohazard material should go into an appropriate container, and chemical waste materials may need to be disposed of separately for pick-up by a chemical waste vendor.
Lab staff should be able to access spill control materials quickly, and the necessary items should be stored in a location designated by signage. Perform an inventory of spill supplies and make sure there are adequate materials that could handle spills of the biohazards and chemicals stored and used in the department. Be sure items in the spill kit are not expired, and if there is no expiration date for absorbent powders, check them at least annually for effectiveness.
All laboratory staff need to have complete spill clean-up training. Give information about the types and locations of spill kits and how to handle various types of spills that can occur. Once that training is done, it will become important to perform spill drills in the department. Drills can be performed a number of different ways, but a common method involves having a “victim” spill water onto the floor and claim the material splashed into their eyes. Watch from a distance to see how the staff reacts. Do they provide appropriate first aid? Do they inspect the container label? Do they access the correct clean-up supplies and facilitate cleaning efficiently? Make notes of how the drill went, discuss them with the staff, and repeat the drills until all staff are comfortable with a spill situation. Biological and chemical spills should not be a common occurrence in the lab. When they do occur, however, the situation can become serious quickly, and a fast and effective clean-up needs to occur. Because these events are rare, it becomes important to provide regular spill training and drills so staff can remain ever-ready to handle them.