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How to Safely Cleanup Chemical and Oil Spills

Posted January 21, 2023 by Mike Lewis under Tips

How to Safely Cleanup Chemical and Oil Spills


Cleaning up chemical and oil spills can be extremely dangerous if not done properly. As the person responsible for the cleanup, it is critical that I take the necessary precautions to protect myself, others, and the environment. In this article, I will provide an in-depth guide on how to safely clean up chemical and oil spills.

Assess the Spill

The first step is to assess the spill to determine the type of substance, amount spilled, and extent of contamination.

  • I need to identify the source of the spill and the type of chemical or oil. Reviewing manifests, labels, SDS sheets, and other documentation can help identify the substance.

  • Next, I should estimate the amount spilled. This will help determine the appropriate response measures and equipment needed for containment and cleanup. For liquids, I can compare the size of the spill to known volumes.

  • It is also critical to determine the extent of contamination. Chemical and oil spills can spread quickly across surfaces and sink into soil. I need to check storm drains, surface waters, soil, and other pathways the substance may have traveled.

Documenting details and taking photos creates a record of the initial spill conditions. I should be sure to note the date, time, location, weather conditions, and my observations.

Secure the Area

Once I have assessed the spill, the next priority is to secure the area to prevent exposure and further environmental contamination.

  • I need to isolate the spill area with cones, tape, fencing or other barriers. This will keep unnecessary personnel from entering.

  • If the spill occurred indoors, I should shut down HVAC systems to prevent the spread of vapors.

  • I also need to control sources that continue to leak or drip chemical/oil from equipment, containers, etc. Plugging, patching or transferring remaining material to secure containers is important to stop further release.

  • Ventilate enclosed areas to help displace toxic fumes, but only if it does not spread contamination.

  • Finally, I should post signs or placards around the area warning of the spill and restricting access.

Personal Protective Equipment

Before proceeding with cleanup activities, it is essential that I wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for the hazards. This includes:

  • Impermeable coveralls or chemical splash suit
  • Boots, neoprene if necessary for wading
  • Gloves that are chemical resistant
  • Safety goggles and face shield
  • Respirator fit-tested for the contaminants

I need to inspect all PPE to ensure it is clean and in serviceable condition. Damaged or degraded equipment may not offer full protection. Using the buddy system, I can have my partner double check my gear before I enter the hot zone.

Spill Control and Containment

Once secured and properly equipped, I can focus on controlling the spilled material.

  • For large spills on land, I need to construct an earthen dike or trench to contain the material. This should surround the perimeter of the spill.

  • For spills to water, I can deploy containment booms to corral the oil or chemicals at the surface.

  • Absorbent pads and loose sorbents can soak up liquids that pool in low-lying areas. Storm drains may need to be plugged with inflatable drain seals.

  • Special spill control equipment like vacuum trucks can remove significant standing volumes.

Prompt control and containment prevents the spill from becoming unmanageable. I need to work quickly but safely to minimize contamination.

Decontamination and Cleanup

Once the spill is controlled, I can start cleanup and decontamination efforts:

  • Solidify spilled material using binding agents like commercial solidifiers, kitty litter, sand, or soil. This immobilizes contamination for easier recovery.

  • Pump or vacuum freestanding liquid into secure storage drums or tanks. Mark and label containers appropriately.

  • Shovel or scoop absorbed or solidified material into drums for disposal.

  • Clean contaminated surfaces with commercial degreasers, solvents, or detergents. Use heavy duty cleaners for porous surfaces like concrete.

  • Excavate and remove heavily contaminated soil.

  • Treat or dispose contaminated cleanup debris and media as hazardous waste.

I should continue cleanup until all visible traces of the spill are gone. Post-cleanup validation sampling can verify the area has been fully decontaminated.

Waste Handling and Disposal

As the cleanup proceeds, I must properly handle, label, store and dispose of all generated waste:

  • Waste material from chemical and oil spills may exhibit hazardous characteristics like ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. I need to determine how to classify the waste.

  • Hazardous waste requires proper labeling including the accumulation start date, composition and properties.

  • Containers need to be stored securely with secondary containment in case of leaks.

  • Review disposal requirements and only use permitted TSDFs. Hazardous waste manifests are required for off-site shipping to track the waste.

Proper waste management ensures contaminants are not released or spread during interim storage or transportation. Carefully following all hazardous waste regulations is critical.

Reporting and Documentation

All spills should be thoroughly documented with notes, photos, sampling results, and other records. I must report spills that exceed set quantity limits per regulations like the EPA’s reportable quantities (RQs). For example, oil spills over 42 gallons would require notification.

Some key reporting responsibilities:

  • Report spills immediately to the National Response Center hotline
  • Notify state environmental agencies and local authorities
  • File written follow-up reports with regulators detailing response actions

Accurate documentation provides regulators with assurance that spills were cleaned up safely. Reports may also help identify procedural improvements for the future.


Cleaning up chemical and oil spills requires meticulous care to avoid hazardous exposures and environmental impacts. By properly assessing the spill, containing the material, donning protective equipment, managing waste, and documenting activities, spill responders can protect health and minimize ecological damage. A methodical, safety-focused approach is critical when dealing with hazardous substance releases. With precautions and proper techniques, chemical and oil spills can be remediated effectively.

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