A Chemical Event Just Occurred: What Next?

How would you react in the case of a chemical event in your facility?

Unfortunately, it’s something that organizations in life sciences, academia, industry, and elsewhere must face. Labs, factories, and other sites with chemicals must, inevitably, deal with unforeseen events—including potentially hazardous chemical leaks or spills.

So, it’s crucial the lab and personnel are prepared to respond quickly, compliantly, and safely. This way, the team can proactively address any issues and minimize their potential negative effects. Less time, money, and effort are required to mitigate the event, ensuring that lab work continues productively.

On the other hand, in an unprepared organization, the worst impacts are likely. Let’s suppose someone detects the problem before it becomes a full-blown event and sends out an alert. In that case, the unprepared response team is reactive, confused, and unlikely to mount an efficient response. In this scenario, the organization will likely incur damage and lost production time. There may also be injuries—unfortunately, sometimes chemical mishaps are a matter of life and death.

Chemical Event Response Scenario

We’ll drill down in more detail and review two hypothetical cases where a chemical event is occurring. We’ll use the same scenario I’ve created (based loosely on actual events) for both, and show the differences in the reactions.

Envision a midsized lab, with 100 on-site employees who use chemicals in research and production. Included in their chemical stock are toxic materials, corrosives, flammables, and a variety of reactive compounds. There is a large chemical storage area connected to the lab, accessible via a locked door.

One day at 4 a.m., Employee A arrives at the lab. A strong chemical odor is present near the door to the chemical storage area, and liquid is leaking out from behind the door. Employee A doesn’t have a key to open it, nor knows who does.

Now, we'll see how this event can unfold in two separate ways—depending on the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) and chemical inventory management preparedness of the organization.

LAB A: Unprepared for Chemical Event

  • The employees are untrained in safety culture, as the lab hasn’t created any set policy. Employee A assumes the problem will fix itself somehow and goes about routine lab work.
  • The chemical smell is overwhelming Employee A, and the puddle is growing beyond the storage room door. Employee A decides to alert management—but doesn’t have a standard operating procedure (SOP) to follow in or an available emergency contact list. Employee A doesn’t have the number of an operations or safety manager in their cell phone, either. They alert their immediate lab supervisor, who doesn’t order a lab evacuation or take corrective action.
  • Other employees arrive at the lab to start work. Although noticing the chemical smell, they all enter the lab—potentially exposing themselves to toxic substances. Someone remembers where the chemicals storage room key is. Soon after, as a group, the assembled lab workers open the door and enter the room. They find the floor is wet and the spill is spreading.
  • Faintly visible, there are all sorts of chemicals in drums, in stacks and on pallets and shelves. However, the room is mostly dark; the employees don’t know where the light is, and no one has a flashlight. The workers wonder what chemicals they are smelling and look for an inventory list.
  • The employees decide to try to solve the problem themselves—without knowing the source of the leak, or what the substance is. They begin to flip through expired paper safety data sheets (SDSs) and binders, all the while breathing in an odorous chemical vapor.
  • Employee A starts feeling dizzy and pulls the fire alarm, and everyone abandons the building. Someone calls 911 and emergency responders arrive. They ask about the chemicals stored onsite—but the lab managers don’t have any documentation to show them. The responders weigh if they should enter the building because of the unknown risks.
  • Management calls in outside EHS specialists to investigate the spill. They will treat it as an unknown and unmanaged release event and perform an expensive cleanup. The lab may lose a full week’s productivity. Because of improper chemical storage, safety training, and communications, it may also face an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation and fines.
  • The spill may soon reach outside the lab and potentially cause contamination that will affect the surrounding environment. The entire organization receives bad publicity and regulators prepare an investigation—that will potentially result in fines.

LAB B: Prepared for a Chemical Event

  • Employee A, like all the other lab personnel, is trained in safety responses. The lab team has been trained on the SOPs, which are readily available for reference. When Employee A observes the spill, they know to clear the area and where to find the emergency contact list, in the lab and online. Employee A notifies the chief operations officer and their immediate supervisors about the spill. Management alerts the spill response team, which scrambles into action.
  • Employee A and their manager move to a safe distance, where they access the online chemical inventory.  Electronically, they pull up a list of the storage room’s active chemicals. They send the inventory to their dedicated spill response team, so its members can use the information to reference the appropriate SOPs for chemical cleanup.
  • The spill response team arrives. They have the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleanup supplies, based on the inventory and anecdotal information from Employee A. The team members establish control zones, don their PPE, and investigate the scene. They access the key where it's stored, and open the door. They know where the lights are (they also have flashlights), and rapidly locate the leaking drum. Even though the chemical label is obscured, they can determine the material spilled by looking up the inventory barcode, visible on the drum’s top.
  • The spill team easily gains access to the correct SDS for the leaking chemical. The members execute a quick and safe cleanup, without a hitch. The lab avoids the worst-case scenarios: No one takes on undo risks; there is no need to call in emergency responders; and no chemicals escape into the environment.
  • As a precaution, company management will keep personnel out of the lab for the day, and air out any lingering odors. Managers will also perform an internal root-cause analysis for what happened to cause the leak. Ultimately, this well-managed incident will be nothing more than a small hiccup, at most, for the business.

While hypothetical, these scenarios do come up, in various forms, in the real world. Do you know which lab you most resemble? Perhaps you have characteristics of both facilities.

Managers must squeeze every bit of risk out of their chemical inventory operations. The more documentation, training, and communication, the better the chemical event response. At Triumvirate Environmental, we specialize in reducing risk through the smartest and safest best practices for chemical inventory management. We offer emergency response, and other related services for lab and facility chemicals. 

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