Importance of spill response

Spills can occur in nearly any work setting, including in chemical manufacturing plants, hospitals, gas stations or even in places like hardware stores. They can be caused by accident, upset process conditions, insufficient preventative maintenance, lack of standard operating procedures or training, or by natural events like earthquakes.

Spills often occur during operations that involve the transfer of liquid, gas or solid materials, and frequently result from the pumping or pouring of materials between vessels (such as trucks or rail cars) and storage tanks. Drummed material can also be spilled from bungs or lid seals during handling or transport, or even through puncture holes such as when a forklift accidentally runs a fork through the side of a drum.

Spills can also be caused by unconventional means, like through piped transfers that cause spills in the form of leaks from corroded pipes, at joints or at pumps. Bulk or other storage containers can also leak due to corroded walls or damaged/worn seams at connections for pipes, instruments or access hatches.

Why spills can be dangerous

The severity of a spill depends on what, how and where the material is spilled. Spill materials that have the potential to affect the health and safety of workers on a worksite, or the community and area surrounding the spill site, will depend on many factors, like whether the material is a gas, liquid or solid, the toxicity of the material and the quantity spilled. Spills that release gases or liquids that evaporate quickly are more likely to create an inhalation hazard, while flammable material spills can create the risk of fire or explosion.

The risk associated with each hazard is unique to the different stages of a spill, including the initial incident, evaluation and re-entry into the contaminated area. For example, during a caustic spill, the potential for eye or skin injury will be highest for the person closest to the initial spill, lowest for people away from the spill but evacuating the area, and moderate for those in charge of containing and cleaning up the spill.

Legislation to protect against the hazards associated with spills

All provinces have regulations that address spill response and they vary dependent on the size and hazard level of the spill. This takes into consideration where the spill occurred (e.g. whether it was indoors versus on a roadway) and whether it has the potential to spread outside of the industrial site (such as through a waterway or sewer).

Regardless of location, the intent of these regulations is to help ensure the safety of individuals, the community and the environment. Some provinces publish guidelines to help industries prepare for the event of a spill, for example, British Columbia publishes the Guidelines for Industry Emergency Response Plans. The Canadian Standards Associate (CSA) has published a best practice for planning and managing emergencies in CAN/CSA-Z73.03 (R2014) - Emergency Preparedness and Response. While this standard is not specific to hazardous material spills, it provides a process by which companies can prepare and manage such crises.

How to prevent spills from occurring

The most effective way to prevent spills is by anticipating, recognizing, evaluating and controlling the risk of them occurring in the first place. Spills that do not occur present the least risk and lowest cost, making spill prevention the primary goal. Prevention of spills requires thoughtful process design, effective operating procedures, preventative maintenance, training and diligence.

Because the risk of a spill can never be completely eliminated, preparation is extremely important. Spill response plans should include:

  • - Evaluations of hazards and risk analysis;
  • - Strategies for evacuation, containment, recovery/clean up, and waste disposal;
  • - A communications plan that addresses people onsite, the community, regulators (where reporting is required), and with emergency services such as fire departments and hospitals;
  • - Staging of equipment;
  • - Drills to practice managing the spill response

Suggested respiratory protection for spills

Choosing the ideal type of respirator to be worn in the event of a spill can be challenging. Some spills require lower levels of protection because the spilled material may have properties such as low toxicity or because it evaporates very slowly. In these types of instances, workers may be able to use half or full facepieces equipped with the appropriate filters and/or cartridges.

The challenge that arises is when it’s difficult to know or accurately estimate the airborne concentrations associated with a spill. All jurisdictions in Canada require undetermined exposure concentrations of toxic materials to be considered immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH). Further, all jurisdictions require use of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or combination pressure-demand airline respirator that is equipped with an escape SCBA during exposures to potentially IDLH environments. These types of respirators can be the easiest choice because they offer the highest level of protection for the widest ranges of chemicals and they best assure compliance with the health and safety regulations that apply to respirator use for spill response.

Benefits of different types of respirators for spill response

Each type of respirator has advantages and disadvantages that should be taken into consideration when chosen to provide respiratory protection against spill response. The commonality between each type of respirator is that it should be selected by a competent person based on the circumstance of each exposure scenario.

  1. Air purifying respirators – When equipped with appropriate filters or cartridges, this type of respirator may be suitable when exposures are known to be below the maximum use concentration (MUC).
  2. Emergency escape breathing devices (EEBD) – These types of respirators are simple, lightweight, compact self-contained breathing apparatuses that are designed for emergency escape. They can be hung on the wall in convenient locations so that if needed, workers can use one to safely evacuate the area in the event of a spill. The essential components of EEBDs include a loose-fitting hood and small cylinder of breathing air. When required, the user simply opens the cylinder valve to start airflow, and then pulls the hood over their head. The hood helps protect the eyes, nose and throat from irritating and potentially toxic gases and vapours. EEBDs typically have air supplies that last from between 5 and 15 minutes, with the size of the air supply chosen based on the distance that a worker would need to traverse to reach safety.
  3. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) – This type of respirator is often used for re-entry during containment and recovery or cleanup operations. SCBAs are available with cylinders rated for 30, 45, 60 or 75 minutes and some enable quick cylinder change that can allow for extended work times with minimal work disruption. SCBAs can also be configured with airline attachments that allow the worker to quickly and conveniently breathe from a large remote air source which can potentially allow the use of smaller, lighter cylinders on the SCBA itself.

    Based on their construction and approvals, SCBAs are typically considered for industrial use or fire-service use. However, it’s worth noting that SCBAs which meet the current National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 1981 standard are an ideal method of respiratory protection for response to toxic industrial chemical (TIC) spills. SCBA that meet NFPA 1981 are also suitable for when flammable material are spilled because they are certified to Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) standard 913 as Class 1, Division 1, Groups C and D, as well as Class 2, Division 1, Groups E, F and G. This means that these types of SCBAs will not present a source of ignition during the spill response, assuming the equipment is properly used and has been properly maintained. This can help reduce the risk of fire and injury when working around flammable liquids or dust.

As with any workplace hazard, spill prevention and preparation are key. A comprehensive and well-practiced spill response plan can help minimize the odds of a spill occurring and also have the benefit of ensuring that workers are ready to take action in the event of an accident.

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