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Hazmat Awareness and Spill Kits Improve Safety and Efficiency

By Karen Hamel, New Pig Corporation

Kit 420 Spill Control

Punctured radiators and grazed saddle tanks are just two of the leaky messes that drivers may face when they’re called out to assist disabled vehicles. Getting these and other vehicle fluids under control quickly and safely can present challenges.

Whether it’s crankcase oil, brake fluid, antifreeze or battery acid, all are essential fluids that keep vehicles running. Unfortunately, these fluids aren’t very useful when they’re leaking into the ground. To make matters worse, most are considered to be hazardous – presenting problems for both the environment and personal safety. Knowing what to do before a spill kit is chosen is just as important as choosing the right one.

Recognizing Hazards

Being able to quickly recognize different vehicle fluids and understanding their hazards is an important safety consideration for drivers. It allows the correct absorbents, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other tools to be chosen and used for the fastest, most efficient response.

In addition to these liquids, drivers can face just about anything when they pull up to a scene.

Tank trucks carry anything from water to highly flammable or corrosive materials. And just like engine fluids, if there’s an accident, these can leak, too. In many cases, drivers are not trained to respond to large chemical spills, and, even in the event of a large tanker spill, they will not be called upon to assist with actual cleanup duties for those liquids. However, because they could encounter a wide variety of hazardous liquids, it’s a good idea for everyone to have at least a general awareness of the hazards that they could face at an accident scene.

Fire departments, the local emergency management agency or the local hazmat team are all good sources for free or low-cost hazard awareness training. This training won’t train drivers to gear up and respond to a big spill, but it will give them an understanding of how to look for hazards and help them to understand the steps that they can take to stay safe.

Protecting the Bottom Line

Employees are arguably a company’s most valuable asset, so protecting them from harmful chemical splashes that might occur while they’re out clearing vehicles from a scene should be a priority. As spill response supplies are being chosen, consider what types of gloves, splash goggles and other PPE might also be needed to keep drivers safe.

It is important to have PPE that is resistant to the fluids that drivers will regularly face. But, it is also important to recognize that no single type of glove, splash suit or other piece of PPE will protect workers from everything. If they are at a scene with an unknown chemical, it is far safer for them to step back and wait for help from someone who has knowledge of the chemicals involved than it is to wear PPE that won’t properly protect them from harm.

Understanding Absorbents

Absorbents come in lots of different colors, shapes, forms and sizes. In most cases, choosing the wrong one won’t bring doom and utter destruction – but just like tools, choosing the right one will make the job go a lot more smoothly.

The first thing to know is that absorbents come in two types: universal and water-repellent (also called “oil-only”). Universal absorbents are non-selective – they will absorb just about any liquid that comes into contact with them. This can be a good thing because they always work, no matter what the liquid is. But, it can be bad if the absorbent is not compatible with the liquid. It can also be bad if it is raining because the absorbents will pick up both the spilled liquid and rainwater, so more absorbents will likely be needed to get a spill cleaned up.

Water-repellent or oil-only absorbents only absorb oils and petroleum products. These are a first choice for response in bad weather because they’ll repel water and only absorb the oils and petroleum products present. The limiting factor is that they will not pick up coolants, battery acid or any other water-based liquids. When choosing absorbents for a spill kit, it’s a good idea for drivers to have both universal and oil-only absorbents.

The next thing to understand is which form of absorbent to use: socks, mats, or loose. Having a combination of these three forms will help get small spills under control and cleaned up quickly.

Socks come in different lengths, and like other absorbents, can be either universal or oil-only.  The main function of socks is to create a dike that absorbs and stops the spill from spreading any further.

Absorbent mats are used to quickly soak up spills that have been contained. They can also be placed under something that is slowly dripping to catch the drips until the source of the leak can be found and repaired.

Loose absorbents are probably the most familiar. They can be poured around a spill to dike it or sprinkled over a contained spill to soak it up. The limiting factor with loose absorbents is that they need to be swept or shoveled up after use, unlike mats and socks, which are easier and faster to pick up after they’ve done their job.

The last thing to consider is how much liquid each absorbent can hold. This helps to determine how many of each type of absorbent to put into a spill kit. Most vehicle spills are less than 10 gallons. In most cases, a spill kit that absorbs 10 to 20 gallons will fit in the cab, and will be lightweight enough for anyone to pull it from the cab for fast use.

Spill Kit Picks

Spill kits come in different shapes and sizes.  They can come prepackaged from a supplier, or they can be put together onsite from materials supplied by different vendors.  Like tools in a toolbox, as time goes on, operators will discover which products and tools they like the best and which are the most useful. Some of the most common items in spill kits are:

  • Absorbents (socks and mats)
  • Appropriate PPE
  • Hand wipes
  • Temporary disposal bags
  • Patch and repair items

Prepackaged spill kits come in both one-time-use and refillable varieties. One-time-use kits are convenient because when they are used at a scene, they can be quickly replaced with a new kit.   Refillable kits can be more economical, and can be refilled as the contents are used.

Ready for Action

People rarely call for a tow truck unless something has gone wrong. Disabled vehicles and highway accidents cause traffic congestion and can spur additional accidents. Being prepared to handle small spills quickly and safely adds value to towing services, prevents fluids from being tracked from the scene and minimizes slippery road conditions caused by fluids that leak from vehicles.

Karen D. Hamel is a technical specialist for New Pig Corp. She has over 20 years of experience helping environmental, health and safety professionals find solutions to meet EPA, OSHA and DOT regulations.  She is a hazmat technician, serves on the Blair County, PA LEPC, is a CERT trainer and has completed a variety of hazmat response and NIMS courses, including Planning Section Chief. She can be reached at 1-800-HOT-HOGS® (468-4647) or by email karenh@newpig.com