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How to respond to spills

Despite being careful, spills can still happen. As soon as they happen, it’s what you do next that matters.

Even if you think “we’re too careful for spills”, it may not be you — it may be your equipment: a hydraulic line rupturing and spilling fluid all over the floor, a pipe blowing a valve and spraying process chemicals everywhere. Or it may be on your premises: a delivery truck backing into an outdoor bulk tank, spilling hundreds of litres of waste oil, or a delivery tanker spilling fluid in your parking lot near a storm drain. Or it may actually be you: when a staff member driving a forklift knocks a pallet of drums, one falls and the bung starts leaking…

But it may be none of these. Even operations with excellent material handling and liquid-transfer procedures can experience that 1 in 100 chance that something will go wrong. And when it does, it’s usually Murphy’s Law that it will be at with the worst liquid, at the worst time, in the worst place.

So rather than “if’, it’s more like “when,” “where” and “how” a spill happens. Because liquids are unpredictable, it’s important that you know what to do.  

Spills handled incorrectly can be anything from annoying (disrupting operations) and very annoying (shutting down your facility), to dangerous in injuring employees or causing environmental damage. They can also be very costly — either in fines, or by jeopardising your business’s financial stability or by ruining your image.

Where to begin?

Firstly, identify any weak spots (such as drums, bulk tanks, drains, and so on), then reduce the risks.

Preparation is key. Having spill response equipment doesn’t mean you’re asking for an accident. Like insurance, you have it on hand to minimise the worst. Preparation includes a plan that all staff know about, the right equipment and proper training. In this way you will limit damage and injuries, and be able to get back to normal with minimum downtime. Complying with regulations is also much better for your profits.

There are 5 steps in responding to spills:

  1. Be ready
  2. Investigate (but don't touch)
  3. Use personal protection equipment (PPE)
  4. Clean up and decontaminate
  5. File any reports that are needed


Begin with the Safety Data Sheets (SDS) of the materials you have onsite. These will tell you:

  • if spills need to be handled very quickly to minimise hazards
  • if noxious fumes mean you should evacuate
  • any health hazards associated with spilled liquids
  • any fire or explosion risks associated with spilled materials, and
  • whether spilled materials will react with other materials

Next, do an audit to confirm how these materials are stored, transferred and used, and the worst-case scenario for any spill.  

Identify your business’s spill-prone areas and create an action plan — for each one — that includes possible spill scenarios, steps for effective response and the resources needed to respond; this may include outside resources, so make sure to detail all contact information. Make sure you also detail employee responsibilities (this is better by job description, in case individually named people leave).

And now you need to train your staff. Every employee — whether they sit in the office or work on the floor — needs to know their role during a spill emergency. Roles may vary from making announcements, securing the perimeter or physically responding to the spill. Regular drills are a good idea so people know what to do in the heat of an emergency.

Staff will have different levels of involvement, from first responder awareness, to first responder operations, then hazardous materials technicians, hazardous materials specialists and on-scene incident commanders.

Part of being prepared is having the right equipment:

Then, of course, it’s also an excellent idea to have the right patch, repair and maintenance gear on hand, and also to have the right storage and materials handling.

Your audit and written plan will give you a good idea about what to stock in each spill-prone area, which can mean the difference between a minor incident and major catastrophe.


While it may seem like the right thing to do, never just run into a situation — it could be highly dangerous. Always size it up first. That’s why it’s vital to train staff to recognize hazards and risks.

Not all staff will be designated spill responders, but all should be trained to:

  • Stop: Never walk through a spill, or touch or taste it to work out what it is, and don’t rush into a spill area. If you smell something unfamiliar, don’t go looking for the source.
  • Look: How big is the spill? Is the source obvious? What equipment is in the spill area? Is the spill headed for drains or other sensitive areas?
  • Listen: Are there any unusual sounds like hissing (from a burst feed line or a pressure valve)? If you can’t figure out what has spilled, let your facility’s trained responders, who will be wearing appropriate PPE, determine what it is.


All emergency spill responders need the right PPE to protect them from potential hazards.

If you’ve done a proper audit and have spill response plans in hand, your responder staff will have a pretty good idea about what they’re up against. SDS (safety data sheet) or other guides will help the response team choose the right equipment to handle the spill


Once the response team is properly suited up, and have secured the area around the spill, it’s clean-up time.

It’s important that workers don't ever respond to large spills by themselves. Having a “buddy” makes it easier to put on and take off suits, carry equipment, transport any victims and deal with situations if something goes wrong.

Whatever size the spill is, the clean-up process is the same:

1. Create a physical barrier around it:

  • Absorbent socks or spill dikes, for smaller spills
  • Booms for larger ones

Always block access to floor or storm drains and other environmentally sensitive areas

2. Find the source — and stop it:

  • Roll punctured drums so the hole is at the top
  • Shut off valves to ruptured pipelines or leaking hoses
  • Plug or patch leaking tanks or other containers

3. Clean up

Begin from the outside and work towards the middle, unless something inside the spill area has to be removed or protected from damage.

4. Collect clean-up materials

  • Proper absorbents take on the characteristics of absorbed liquids and should be disposed of correctly (proper absorbents are actually more cost effective to dispose of than cheaper materials not specifically suited to the job)
  • Also properly dispose of (or decontaminate) PPE, tools and other items

5. Decontaminate

  • Set up decontamination lines before beginning the response
  • Decontaminate the spill area, tools and responders
  • Decontaminate as per your plan (this may via wet or dry methods, and it’s a good idea to pre-test these for specific situations before you actually need to do it after an emergency)

Once the spill is cleaned up, your facility is ready to swing back into operation.


Including reporting requirements and contact information in your response plan makes it easier on the person who has to file any formal reports. It’s also a good idea to find out if certain spills (and clean ups) need to be reported straight away and to whom; you don’t want to cop fines for not following reporting guidelines.

For help in choosing the right spill-response equipment for your facility, call us on 1800 HOT HOG (468 464). Or get in touch with us.

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