Skip to main content

Emergency Procedures

Chemical Spill or Release

When an accidental chemical spill or release occurs the UWGB employee on the scene (staff, instructor, researcher, laboratory technician, etc.) decides whether to treat the situation as a nonemergency chemical (simple) spill or as an emergency spill. Knowledge of the hazards associated with the spilled or released chemical is required to make this determination. An emergency is any immediate threat to personal safety and health, the environment, or property that cannot be controlled and corrected safely and easily by the individual at the scene. Emergencies generally include injury, fire, explosion threat, toxic conditions, illness (e.g. heart attack or stroke), and property damage threat. Use the Chemical Spill Assessment flowchart to help make the determination of whether a spill/release constitutes an emergency. A spill or release that meets criteria as an emergency should not be handled by campus employees. For emergency spills, the area should be evacuated and Public Safety (2300) should be called for assistance.

If a spill or release is discovered by an Operations employee or an employee not familiar with the incident and a hazard evaluation cannot be made, the spill or release should be treated as an emergency. Call 2300. A person unfamiliar with a chemical substance and its hazards should not attempt any type of clean-up or containment.

It is important that all employees understand that once a spill or release is considered an emergency, containment and clean up of the spill will be coordinated by the Green Bay Fire Department.

The following section explains how to handle a nonemergency or simple spill or release in the laboratory.

A. Preplanning
  1. A spill containment/clean up plan should be established to handle chemicals you use in the laboratory. Consideration must be given to the maximum amount used and concentrations of chemicals. Familiarize yourself with spill clean up equipment available. If necessary obtain sufficient supplies to handle potential spills.
  2. The person causing a spill or release is responsible for clean up to the extent of his/her ability. Laboratory technicians may be available for assistance but they are not responsible for clean up. Persons who work with chemicals are expected to know how to safely clean up spills of these chemicals.
B. Simple Spill Clean up
  1. Prevent the spread of dusts and vapors. If the substance is volatile or can produce airborne dusts, close the laboratory door and increase ventilation (through fume hoods, for example) to prevent the spread of dusts and vapors to other areas.
  2. Neutralize acids and bases if possible. Spills of most liquid acids or bases, once neutralized can be mopped up and rinsed down the drain (to the sanitary sewer). However, be careful because the neutralization process is often vigorous, causing splashes and yielding large amounts of heat. Neutralize acids with soda ash or sodium bicarbonate. Bases can be neutralized with citric acid or ascorbic acid. Use pH paper to determine when acid or base spills have been neutralized.
  3. Control the spread of the liquid. Contain the spill. Make a dike around the outside edges of the spill. Use absorbent materials such as vermiculite, cat litter, or spill pillows.
  4. Absorb the liquid. Add absorbents to the spill, working from the spill's outer edges toward the center. Absorbent materials, such as cat litter or vermiculite, are relatively inexpensive and work well, although they are messy. Spill pillows are not as messy as other absorbents, but they are more expensive. Note that special absorbents are required for chemicals such as hydrofluoric and concentrated sulfuric acids.
  5. Collect and contain the cleanup residues. The neutralized spill residue or absorbent should be scooped, swept, or otherwise placed into a plastic bucket or other container. For dry powders or liquids absorbed to dryness, double bag the residue using plastic bags. Additional packaging may be required before the wastes can be transported from your laboratory. Be sure to label containers.
  6. Dispose of the wastes. Keep cleanup materials separate from normal trash. Contact Scott Piontek, ext. 2273, for guidance in packaging and labeling cleanup residues. Promptly place cleanup wastes in an appropriate hazardous waste receptacle.
  7. Decontaminate the area and affected equipment. Ventilating the spill area may be necessary. Open windows or use a fan unless the area is under negative pressure. IN some instances, your environmental health and safety officer can test the air to ensure that hazardous vapors are gone. For most spills, conventional cleaning products, applied with a mop or sponge, will provide adequate decontamination.
C. Special Precautions
  1. Flammable liquids. Remove all potential sources of ignition. Vapors are what actually burn, and they tend to accumulate near the ground. Flammable liquids are best removed though the use of spill pillows or pads. Spill pads backed with a vapor barrier are available from most safety supply companies. Because flammable liquids will probably be incinerated, avoid using inert absorbents such as cat litter. All used absorbent materials should be placed in heavy-duty poly bags, which are then sealed, labeled, and disposed through your facility's hazardous waste management program. Before resuming work, make sure the spill has been adequately ventilated to remove flammable vapors.
  2. Volatile Toxic Compounds. Use appropriate absorbent material to control the extent of the spill. Spill pillows or similar absorbent material usually work best because they do not have the dust associated with cat litter, vermiculite, or corn cobs. Place all used absorbent materials in heavy-duty poly bags. Seal the bags, label them and hand them over Scott Piontek, ext. 2273. Again, make sure the spill area has been adequately ventilated before resuming work.
  3. Direct Contact Hazards. Carefully select suitable personal protective equipment. Make sure all skin surfaces are covered and that the gloves you use protect against the hazards posed by the spilled chemical. Often it is a good idea to wear two sets of gloves: one as the primary barrier, the second as a thin inner liner in the event the primary barrier fails. When the cleanup is complete, be sure to wash hands and other potentially affected skin surfaces.
  4. Mercury Spills. Mercury spills rarely present an imminent hazard unless the spill occurs in an area with extremely poor ventilation. The main exposure route of mercury is via vapor inhalation. Consequently, if metallic mercury is not cleaned up adequately, the tiny droplets remaining in surface cracks and crevices may yield toxic vapors for years.
    When a mercury spill occurs, first cordon off the spill area to prevent people from inadvertently tracking the contamination over a much larger area. Generally, a special mercury vacuum cleaner provides the best method of mercury spill cleanup. Do not use a regular vacuum cleaner, because you will only disperse toxic vapors into the air and contaminate your vacuum cleaner. If a special mercury vacuum is not available, first use an appropriate suction device to collect the big droplets, then use a special absorbent to amalgamate small mercury droplets.

D. Documentation

Report all hazardous waste spill incidents to the University Safety Manager, ext. 2273. Major incidents are almost always preceded by numerous near misses.