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Oops! How to Deal with Common Laboratory Spills

Accidents happen. No matter how small or large, all materials spills demand 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.

Can you handle spills alone?

So what happens if 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, lab coat at the very minimum
  • Have a spill containment kit
  • Are comfortable and knowledgeable enough to handle the situation

…then there should be very little difficulty in cleaning up a minor spill. Minor spills – those that are of small volumes, or a  relatively inoffensive liquid or powder – are the most common kinds of spills that you will ever encounter in a laboratory.

Major spills are a different beast. What distinguishes the two is that a major spill 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. The danger to life, property and/or environment is extreme, and time is of the essence to achieve a safe outcome.

Thankfully, though, minor spills are rare. Major spills are even rarer.

How to handle minor spills

You can deal with common laboratory spills in 4 easy steps:

  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 & Containment
    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.

Here’s a good list of information to communicate when reporting a spill:

  •  Your name and phone number
  • PI’s laboratory name, building and room number
  • Day and time the spill occurred
  • Identification of the chemical
  • Location 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

Afterwards

Afterwards, the Environmental Health & Safety people 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 address the two categories of common laboratory spills, but not at specific examples themselves. In older days, a common spill might have been caused by a broken mercury thermometer. That would have required cleanup with either absorbent powder and/or a specialized vacuum. What would you consider to be a ‘common laboratory spill’ today, and how would someone go about cleaning it up? Please share with us below.

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