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How to Clean up Chemical Spills in the Lab: 4 Essential Rules

Sweets spilling from a jar as a comparison as a way of displaying how to clean up chemical spills in the lab

Accidents happen.

No matter how small or large, chemical spills require immediate attention because they have the potential to contaminate, injure, and create huge issues for more than just one lab if they’re not quickly addressed.

Although there are usually safety measures to minimize the chances of spillages and the damage they cause, it’s wise to prepare for them.

We’ll walk you through how to clean up chemical spills in the lab and educate you on what course of action to take should one occur.

Can You Handle Minor Spills Alone?

So what happens if (say) a few hundred mL of a common reagent is splashed onto the floor or onto the bench? Can you handle it alone?

In many situations, the answer is yes! If you’re unsure of whether or not to try, consider these criteria. If you:

  • See no immediate danger to yourself or others;
  • Review the MSDS for each material involved, noting any special handling requirements;
  • Have the right PPE—gloves, goggles, and lab coat at the very minimum;
  • Have a spill kit in the laboratory;
  • Are comfortable and knowledgeable enough to handle the situation.

Then there should be very little difficulty in cleaning up a minor spill.

And to be clear, minor spills are those that are less than 1 L or involve harmless liquid or powder.

These are the most common kinds of spills that you will ever encounter in a laboratory.

What Is Considered a Large Spill in the Lab?

Major spills are a different beast. What distinguishes a minor spill from a major spill is that the latter is overwhelming to the point that one person (who may or may not have the necessary skills and abilities) must seek specialized help before attempting cleanup.

Generally speaking, a spillage of anything more than 1 L of liquid is considered major.

The danger to life, property, and/or environment is extreme, and time is of the essence to achieve a safe outcome.

Thankfully, major spills are much rarer than minor ones.

Should a major spillage occur, follow this chemical spills procedure:

  • Stop your research;
  • See to any injured or contaminated colleagues and ensure they are safe;
  • Shut of the gas and nullify ignition sources if there’s no immediate threat;
  • Evacuate the lab;
  • Secure the lab;
  • Make all relevant colleagues and personnel aware of the incident;
  • Escalate the incidient to the safety office or emergency services.

How to Clean up Chemical Spills in the Lab

So, if you’re wondering how to clean up chemical spills in the lab, follow these 4 important rules:

  1. Take charge and get everyone to safety
    Some materials react on contact. Others emit particles. And some just smell absolutely horrible. Increasing the distance from an incident is a great way to help get others to safety.
  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
    Inert spills present their own hazards too, like slips and falls and debris from shattered containers. Everyone appreciates being informed of what is going on in the laboratory – all the way through to the very end. In these instances, I don’t think there’s ever a time when there can be too much information shared.
  3. Cleanup and contain (if you can)
    Clean up if you can, but always acknowledge the presence of a spill and take steps to cordon off the nearby area and contain it at the very least. When it affects a large environment, such as an entire floor or building, containment is vitally important so that others don’t accidentally wander through it.
  4. Report it
    Need help? Call in experts! Groups of people at every institution train to respond to common lab spills. When needed, they will bring more resources than what may be available in the laboratory. At my institution these friendly people comprise the Environmental Health and Safety department.

Unsure about what information to communicate when reporting a spill? Here’s a list of important to have to hand:

  • Your name and phone number;
  • PI’s laboratory name, building and room number;
  • Time and date the spill occurred;
  • Identity of the chemical;
  • Where the spill occurred in the lab;
  • Estimated quantity of chemical spilled (or working amount);
  • If there were any injuries;
  • Whether or not PPE was being worn;
  • Whether or not cleanup was attempted; cleanup crew needed; or just calling to report a hazard.

What Happens After a Chemical Spill?

Afterward, the relevant health and safety personnel will make a follow-up visit to the lab for each reported incident. They just want to make sure that staff is aware of what happened, why it happened, and explore how procedures can be changed so it doesn’t occur again.

This may seem inconvenient to some, though it is the perfect opportunity to learn any and everything you ever wanted to know about safety practices.

In this brief article, we’ve looked at how to clean up chemical spills in the lab, both minor and major ones. So you’re all set for spill management in the laboratory environment. Of course, the guidance presented here is not gospel. Please exercise your judgment in all situations!

Further Reading

Want some more info on how to clean up chemical spills in the lab? Interested or responsible for other aspects of laboratory health and safety?

Readers in the US should check out the Occupation Health and Safety Administration.

Readers in the UK should check out the Health and Safety Executive.

And be sure to check out the Bitesize Bio Guide to Lab Safety too.

Originally published in 2012. Reviewed and republished on February 2022

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