Proactivity minimises risks

Proactivity minimises risks

When you hear the term “hazardous spills”, you could be forgiven if your mind jumps straight to images of oil-soaked seabirds or a pond bubbling with toxic waste. But while hazardous chemicals and hydrocarbon-based products are the main source of dangerous accidents, there are other potentially hazardous workplace spills, as Rowan Watt-Pringle investigates

There are a variety of substances, many of which are flammable, that might not necessarily immediately spring to mind but can be dangerous when handled, stored or transported. These are present in many workplaces and, if handled incorrectly, can cause destructive fires and explosions leading to severe injuries and loss of life.

The most important aspect of managing hazardous spills is prevention, rather than cure, says Kevin Murphy, owner of environmental, health and safety provider Spill Doctor. “Most spills can be avoided by properly assessing the risks and adopting the necessary precautions, such as safe storage,” he explains.

A number of chemicals, solvents, fuels and gases are both highly flammable and have the potential to evaporate upon exposure to the atmosphere. This can lead to the accumulation of dangerous vapours and risk ignition or explosion. “Employers dealing with these types of substances have a legal obligation to tackle associated fire and explosion risks,” says Murphy. “This means preventing the release of dangerous substances; preventing or controlling ignition sources; ensuring correct storage; and establishing appropriate procedures for delivery, handling and usage.”

There are several mitigation measures that can reduce the risk of an accident, which Murphy says should be applied in priority order, starting with minimising the quantity of the dangerous substance. Mitigation measures will include reducing how many employees are exposed to the substance and providing staff with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Three elements must be present in order for a fire to start: heat, oxygen and fuel. Safe storage is therefore crucial. “If one of these factors can be removed,” says Murphy, “it removes the risk of a fire.” He adds that it is crucial to follow regulations and best practice for the indoor storage of flammable substances.

The external storage of hazardous substances such as oils and chemicals could pollute nearby drains and/or waterways. Even if a spill is caused by vandals, companies can be prosecuted, so the proactive mitigation of potential consequences is essential. “Employers should be thinking about the amounts of products being stored and the types of storage containers,” Murphy says, “as well as the need for spill pallets or standalone stores with built-in sumps to capture spills and leaks. Bunds and spill pallets must be able to contain at least 110% of the volume of the largest container or 25% of the total volume stored, whichever is greater.”

Containers should obviously be made from materials compatible with the chemical being stored. Storage areas should also be located in suitable areas (for example, well away from any on-site drainage), while it is also essential to be proactive when it comes to dealing with any spills that occur. “One of the most important aspects of spill response is that staff are properly trained on how to deal with spills; a pollution incident response procedure should be drawn up and followed at all times,” notes Murphy. “Spill kits and absorbent materials should be placed where they are highly visible and can be easily accessed not only by staff, but also by any external spill responders or agencies.”

Following a spill, containment is crucial. “It is always better to try to keep any hazardous spill on the surface, so spill kits should be located next to storage areas, with sealing products positioned next to site drains,” explains Murphy. For rapid response, the location of spill containment equipment should also be marked on a readily available site plan, while an inventory of on-site chemicals will help responders to understand what they are dealing with.

There is a range of available absorbents and other containment devices. “In our industry, the majority of spills and products used are for hydrocarbon-based spills, but universal spill kits will absorb a vast range of liquids,” notes Johan Geldenhuys, managing director of Fine Forest Organics, manufacturers of the Petrozorb range of oil and chemical absorbent products, “especially if responders aren’t sure what product best suits a particular spill.” Another approach is bioremediation, a process that alters environmental conditions to stimulate the growth of microorganisms and degrade specific target pollutants. Spill Doctor, for example, offers the first and currently only truly bio-remedial oil “eater” on the local market.

The first step in spill response, says Geldenhuys, is to protect yourself and assess the spill: “Make sure that you are wearing the right safety equipment, including gloves, goggles and dust masks, as well as safety boots and non-static clothing,” he says.

“Once you have assessed the size of the spill and identified, closed off and secured all points of origin, you will need to establish the gravitational flow, make sure the spill is contained and remove any movable obstacles.”

Depending on the type of absorbent products being used, Geldenhuys says there are different approaches to take: “With our Wheelie Bin Spill Kit, for example, booms and socks should be arranged in the direction of gravitational flow and/or spill flow toward any water systems. Pillows can be placed under the spillage source until it can be repaired or closed. Absorbents should be applied around the outside of the spill to contain further spreading, and then swept inwards.”

Once the spill has been contained, the contaminated absorbent should be collected centrally for removal and shovelled into a heavy-duty containment bag or plastic bin, using a spark-proof shovel to prevent the possibility of ignition, in case there are any lingering traces of flammable material.

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