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Chemical Spill Management and Response

Chemical Spill Management and Response

Best practices for preventing chemical spills in the lab

Ira Wainless, B.Ch.E., PE, CIH

Ira Wainless, B.Ch.E., PE, CIH, is a former senior industrial hygiene engineer for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). His career spanned 42 years in industrial hygiene, and he...

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An uncontrolled chemical spill or leakage in the lab is classified as a dangerous and notifiable incident. It can involve a solid, liquid, or gas. In the laboratory, chemical spills are a common occurrence. They can occur at any time and during normal laboratory activities.

Even small chemical spills can have deadly consequences if the substance is highly toxic, corrosive, reactive, or flammable. Therefore, avoiding chemical spills should be a priority for every laboratory.

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Larger spills will invariably release more airborne contaminants, be capable of spreading airborne contaminants to other parts of the building such as through the ventilation system, and if flammable, create a more expansive explosive zone. 

Chemical spill prevention

Regardless of the type or quantity of hazardous chemicals involved, all laboratories must implement measures to reduce the potential for spills and have a plan for responding to chemical spills. 

  Below are preventive measures that management can implement before a spill occurs. These measures are listed under the type of activity during which spills can occur. These tips are meant to act as a general starting point for management to implement more comprehensive and specific measures within their own labs.

Chemical procurement

  • Purchase chemicals in plastic-coated glass bottles when appropriate.
  • Only purchase chemicals for which there is adequate storage space.


  • Chemicals should be stored in secure, designated areas immediately after delivery.
  • Store chemicals within easy reach of everyone in the lab, generally at or below eye level.
  • Open shelves used for chemical storage should be sturdy and be secured to the wall, and not overcrowded with bottles or containers.
  • Do not store chemical containers on the floor, in aisles, in overcrowded areas, or anywhere a bottle/container could be knocked over and broken. Do not store in areas near heat or direct sunlight.
  • Protect containers from breakage by keeping other items from falling on them.
  • Regularly inspect chemicals in storage to ensure there are no leaking or deteriorating containers.
  • All compressed gas cylinders must be securely fastened and stored upright.
  • Ensure that lighting is adequate in the storage area.


  • When transporting large, heavy, or many containers, use a cart suitable for the load with high edges or spill trays that will contain any spills or leaks.
  • Carry glass containers in bottle carriers or another leak-resistant, unbreakable secondary container.
  • Use a gas cylinder handcart when transporting large gas cylinders. Securely strap the cylinder to the cart.

Transferring chemicals

  • Always use funnels for transferring liquids to smaller capacity bottles or volumetric flasks.
  • Maintain situational awareness to prevent overfilling of vessels and containers.

Handling and use

  • Follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) at all times.
  • Always read the safety data sheet (SDS) and label before using a chemical.
  • Wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times.
  • Work in a fume hood whenever possible, even when transferring a small amount of a hazardous chemical.
  • Use Pyrex glassware whenever possible since it has a low potential for breakage.
  • Secure flasks and beakers to prevent them from tipping over.
  • Do not use broken or cracked glassware.
  • Recap containers immediately after use to reduce the risk of spillage if a container is accidentally tipped over.
  • Be alert and attentive to what you are doing to prevent chemicals from being inadvertently dropped on the floor or countertop.


  • Do not mix incompatible wastes to avoid uncontrolled chemical reactions.
  • Correctly identify the contents of all waste containers to prevent inappropriate disposal.
  • Leave at least 20 percent air space in bottles of liquid waste to allow for vapor expansion and to reduce the potential for spills due to overfilling.
  • When not in use, keep waste containers securely closed or capped. 
  • Dispose of waste regularly; do not allow excess waste to accumulate in the work area.

Minor and major spills    

A minor chemical spill is one that the laboratory staff can handle safely without the assistance of safety or emergency personnel. They are small, confined, and present minimal hazards to health or the environment.

A major chemical spill is far more severe and generally necessitates the immediate evacuation of the area concerned, if not the entire premises. Major spills present an immediate hazard including fire, explosion, or chemical exposure to hazardous materials. A large chemical spill requires an emergency response.

Below are SOPs for chemical spills or releases. The cleanup of a chemical spill should only be done by knowledgeable and experienced personnel.

Chemical spill response

  • Identify the spilled material and consult SDS to determine potential hazard(s). 
  • Immediately alert area occupants and evacuate the spill area if necessary. Notify your supervisor. 
  • In the event of a flammable liquid spill, turn off all ignition and heat sources, and ventilate the area. 
  • If a spill occurs beyond the laboratory staff’s ability to handle it safely, call emergency responders.
  • Have someone familiar with the incident available to provide information to the emergency responders. 
  • Don PPE that is appropriate for the hazards. 
  • To stop the spread of vapors or gases, close the doors to the affected area after everyone has safely exited. 
  • Ventilate to the outside by opening windows and activating any existing exhaust fan that vents to the outside. 
  • Confine the spill to a small area. Use appropriate spill kits, absorbents, and neutralizing agents that are compatible with the chemical spilled.
  • Prevent spilled materials from going down drains to avoid affecting the environment. 
  • Properly dispose of all chemical waste and all materials involved with the spill cleanup, such as absorbents, reactants, contaminated clothes, gloves, rags, equipment, broken glass, etc. 
  • All surfaces and PPE that were contaminated by the spill must be cleaned and decontaminated. Dispose of any PPE that cannot be reused.
  • Attend to injured/contaminated/exposed personnel. Remove contaminated clothing. Administer first aid as appropriate and seek medical attention.


The OSHA Laboratory standard, 29 CFR 1910.1450, requires laboratories to develop and implement a chemical hygiene plan (CHP). This written program must be tailored to reflect the specific chemical hazards present in the laboratory and require employers to provide their employees with information and training to ensure that they are apprised of these chemicals' dangers and the measures employees can take to protect themselves. 

The CHP sets forth appropriate procedures, equipment, PPE, and work practices to safely work with these chemicals and what should be done in the event of a spill.

Emergency response planning and training are critical aspects of a sound spill response plan. Before handling any chemical(s), employees should know the facility's policies and procedures for handling a chemical spill. The program should offer clear guidance on whether evacuations are necessary and how employees should handle evacuations, and where employees should go. Employees should know the location of all safety equipment and the nearest fire alarm and telephones. Management should post a list of emergency telephone numbers in a prominent area.

Safety equipment, including spill control kits, safety shields, fire safety equipment, PPE, safety showers and eyewash units, and emergency equipment, should be available in well-marked, prominent locations in all chemical laboratories. In addition to detailed instructions about proper containment, cleanup, and disposal of spilled materials and equipment, the plan should explain how to safely decontaminate the surfaces where the spill occurred. Employees should be prepared to provide essential emergency treatment.

By providing ongoing information and training to ensure that employees understand what to do in the event of a spill, laboratories will minimize the potential danger posed by chemical spills.