Spill control is, or should be, a strong focus of any industrial site’s health, safety, and environmental policies. Whether you’re new to the world of spill control or need updating on current best practices and available products, we’ve written this guide to provide you with everything you need to know.
Spill control is centred around reducing the likelihood and effects of a potentially hazardous spill in the workplace. This can involve any fluid that is likely to cause harm to workers and the environment, including oils, fuels, chemicals and acids.
To minimise the risk of the spill, there are guidelines to ensure that storage best practices are adopted and to manage the effects of a fall. Multiple products are available designed to limit the spread and effect a fast and safe clean-up and disposal.
There are a lot of regulations around storing, transporting and using chemicals. Specific rules exist for different liquids, site types, and hazard levels. Spilling paint indoors is a very different hazard from spilling acid outdoors near the water table — and the rules are quite different.
The vast majority of the general guidelines can be found under either the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) 2002 or COMAH (Control of Major Accident Hazards) 2015 regulations.
COSHH requires business owners and employers to control any substances that could be hazardous to health. The law was updated and brought into force in 2002.
Most industrial workplaces will use some chemicals, fuels, oils or other substances at some point — whether part of the production process, refuelling heavy machinery, or maintenance or cleaning activities. These substances must be carefully managed and controlled to minimise the risks of harm to personnel or the environment.
Specifically relating to spill control measures, the regulations advise that operators, owners and managers must provide control measures to reduce harm to health and keep all control measures in good working order.
These regulations came into force on the 1st of June, 2015, replacing the previous rule established in 1999. The summary provided by the Health and Safety Executive for COMAH is:
‘Take all necessary measures to prevent major accidents involving dangerous substances. Limit the consequences to people and the environment of any major accidents which do occur."
As you can see, these guidelines are targeted more toward potential large-scale accidents like the Chevron Pembroke Refinery explosion and the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster.
Any organisation that has the potential, however unlikely, of a major accident occurring, needs to pay particular attention to these guidelines — if the worst does come to pass, owners, operators and managers can and will be prosecuted if they cannot demonstrate that they were operating within the rules.
The full COMAH regulations and guidance can be found on the HSE website at COMAH - Guidance (hse.gov.uk).
Always be sure to check any locally enforceable regulations as well as site or chemical-specific rules and guidelines. The HSE provides guidelines specific to several industries, an index of which can be found here.
If in doubt, contact a health and safety or COSHH professional. The rules for chemical storage at offshore facilities are a different entity to onshore sites and can be found here.
Good quality, well-thought-out storage is vital to your spill prevention strategy. Make sure that chemicals are stored securely and with diligent attention paid to safety at every turn.
Chemical storage cabinets should always be used to store smaller volumes of potentially hazardous liquids— they are made from steel, lockable, clearly marked and include lipped shelves and sumps to prevent spills or leaks from leaving the cabinet.
Larger volume containers, such as oil drums or fuel tanks, should be placed on a bunded pallet, ensuring that all spillage is collected and contained safely before entering the environment.
Similar solutions exist for generators and plant machinery used outdoors (construction sites, outdoor events etc.), ensuring that diesel or petrol isn’t able to pass into the ecosystem or present an increased risk of fire.
Risk assessment is the first step in any spill management or response activity. This will give you a detailed breakdown of where your chemicals are, what kind there are, in what volumes, and what you need to put in place regarding products, procedures and training.
Risk assessments are legally mandated under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, 1999. These dictate that, at a minimum, employers must do the following:
Conducting a spill management risk assessment doesn’t need to be complicated, but it needs to be as thorough and accurate as possible.
Identifying potential risks can be daunting — after all, combining human error with machine or equipment malfunction can produce an almost limitless number of things that could go wrong. Your responsibility is to identify likely risks and break this procedure into a more manageable activity.
Consider how your staff work, how machinery and equipment are used and how they interact with each other. Detail exactly what chemicals are used, where and how they are stored, how they can react with each other and how they are used. Review any potentially unsafe practices, and use any accident or injury logs you keep to identify what issues have arisen in the past.
Here is where you assess the level of the risk— what is the probability of an issue arising, and if it does arise, what is the likely outcome? A leaky fuel tank next to a welding station would present an extremely high likelihood of an accident with a catastrophic outcome, whereas a relatively inert cleaning fluid kept on a high shelf presents a reasonably good chance of an accident but with little associated danger.
Look at the impacts of a complete spill — so if you keep 250 litres of a chemical on-site, what would happen if the entire load was spilt? From there, look at what measures are already in place to mitigate the risks (storage procedures, for example). Then, assess what else needs to be done to minimise the risk of a hazardous spill.
This is where you put into action all you’ve identified so far. If you are storing or using chemicals on-site, you are likely doing so for a reason — you need them for your business — so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to eliminate any spill risks.
Controlling these risks doesn’t need to be difficult, though. Ensure you are up to date with storage best practices, and make every endeavour to implement, monitor, and train staff on these guidelines.
Spill trays, or drip trays, are a great way of preventing a leak or spill from becoming a hazard. Basic drip trays consist of a rigid frame supporting an empty container to store the spilt liquid, whereas more advanced models will contain absorbent pads and water drainage features.
Because drip trays are relatively small and easy to move around as needed, you should look at using one whenever you are decanting chemicals from bulk to smaller storage or otherwise transferring liquids between containers.
This is one of the most common times a spill can occur, and drip trays represent a cost-effective, easy-to-use and fast way of mitigating the risks. Additionally, consider using a drip tray for small volume storage where a dedicated chemical storage cabinet is unavailable/appropriate.
A spill pallet is essentially a much larger version of a spill tray. They are built to hold oil and fuel drums and IBCs intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) and can collect and store large quantities of spilt fluids. These pallets comprise a supporting grid that holds the container, a layer of absorbents to soak up leaks quickly, and a frame to hold the whole thing together.
Spill pallets should always be able to absorb and retain more liquid than the volume of the largest container kept upon it. UK government guidance requires that a bund used for an oil storage container must be able to hold 110% of the capacity of the container.
Best practice dictates that you should use a bunded spill pallet at any time or place you are storing large volumes of chemicals or fuels, typically in drums or in IBCs.
Cleaning oil spills can be tricky — whether it’s hydraulic oil, engine oil, lubricating oil, or cooking oil. These substances can be particularly hazardous, as they can present an increased slip risk and a fire risk, in addition to ruining your floor if allowed to stain and destroying ecosystems if they reach a drain or water source.
There are two main types of spill kits designed for use against oils:
Oil and fuel spill kits. These contain absorbent pads and rolls that are made out of hydrophobic materials. This means they actively repel water, absorbing only the hydrocarbons (i.e. the fuels and oils). Particularly useful in outdoor or damp environments, these absorbents are also used to make more advanced types of drip trays used for generators and fuel cans, as they will not become saturated with rainwater.
Universal spill kits. These are a more generic spill kit. They can be used for solvents, water, oil and fuels. Because they also absorb moisture, these are less useful in outdoor or damp environments as they can become quickly saturated with water and thus become less effective against the oil spill.
Petrol and diesel present significant health and safety risks when spilt. They make the floor extremely slippery, which increases the likelihood of injury through falling.
They are highly flammable, and any fires can be challenging to contain and extinguish without the proper equipment and training. Environmentally speaking, petroleum products can contaminate drinking water, kill aquatic wildlife and make it very difficult to treat sewage. As a result, because petrol and diesel are some of the more common liquid chemicals in industrial environments, special care needs to be taken.
You’ll want to use hydrophobic socks and pads for oil spills. This will allow you to clean the maximum amount of the spill in the shortest time. Make sure to keep sufficient quantities of absorbents, and if your site is large or fuels are used or stored in different locations, be sure to keep several smaller spill kits spaced around.
Petrol and diesel have a lower viscosity than oils (meaning that the spill will spread much faster), so you need to be able to respond as quickly as possible.
Use the smaller kits nearest the spill to stop the spread and supplement as necessary from elsewhere on site. As with any chemical spill, dispose of the saturated absorbents carefully and safely.
A good quality spill kit will contain everything you need to manage and clean up the spilt liquid. They are designed to be used effectively with little to no training and can be deployed very quickly in a hazardous spill emergency.
At a minimum, a standard spill kit will contain:
More advanced kits might include equipment specific to the type of spill — a paint spill kit, for example, might consist of a tray for the paint can and scrapers to deal with the very viscous fluid.
See our full range of Spill Control products for more related products.
Richard O'Connor is a Director at First Mats. He has deep knowledge in areas like Manufacturing, Warehousing, Marine, and Health & Safety. Richard's insights have been featured in well-known publications such as Bloomberg Business, The Sun, and Reader's Digest. His blend of industry expertise and passion for sharing makes him a sought-after voice in his fields.