In light of the recent Health and Safety law changes surrounding hazardous substances, which came into play on December 1st, a review of how to properly store chemicals and manage hazardous spills seems appropriate. As almost every business stores and uses chemicals in some way, from big industrial plants to office environments, this is information everyone needs.

How to store chemicals safely

Hazardous substances are obviously rather volatile, hence the tough rules surrounding the management, storage, labelling and handling of them, and the name. They need to be stored correctly in order to minimise issues and accidents.

Storing hazardous substances - Do not store reactive chemicals together.
If disaster strikes and the chemicals combine you could end up with a fire, an explosion, or poisonous or flammable gases leaking into the air. Have separate chemicals, acids and reactive metals stored in separate areas. How far apart you store them is a bit of a judgement call - take into consideration earthquakes and fires. If these containers all fell and cracked would they mix with incompatible substances? Do I have water reactors near water sources? If there was a fire would they set off a chain reaction?


Chemical storage cabinets

Flammable products are (ding, ding, ding) flammable, therefore it is best to have chemical cabinets that are flame retardant and help avoid the aforementioned chain reactions.
Alternatively, corrosive chemicals or acids are best to be stored in corrosion-resistant cabinets, preferably with ventilation, because a trail of corroded products, floors, and feet, is a lot harder to deal with than a slightly damaged cabinet.

Proper Labelling

A big change that has occurred within the new Health and Safety laws around hazardous substances, is that the labelling of said substances is a lot more stringent. For the full ruleset, a good read is the WorkSafe article on this topic, but here’s the essence of it:
Correctly label all containers storing substances that have been transferred from their original containers, label containers holding hazardous waste, and label stationary tanks and process containers.

If you think the labelling of all containers is a bit excessive - particularly the labelling of now-empty containers - please read on:
According to the Lab Manager website, lack of labelling on waste containers has resulted in many people using containers for waste different to the original waste that the container held. The article was titled, ‘When things go Boom’. Enough said.


Chemical spill management and clean up

The best way to manage spills is to avoid having them in the first place but accidents happen all the time. I once held a container of concentrated hydrochloric acid too close to my face as I opened it. The initial release of gas from a bottle that had been closed for a long time was quite powerful, and the release happened to take place just as I was inhaling. If you’ve ever experienced the shock of breathing in the hot air the moment you open the oven, then you’ve experienced a fraction of this burning sensation. So disoriented was I, I didn’t realise I had dropped the bottle of acid until it had eaten well into the floor covering. Fun times.

As accidents are a part of life, there need to be appropriate measures in place to minimise and repair these accidents:

Spill Management Procedure

Firstly, you should be wearing the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), so when you drop the hydrochloric acid, the only thing that gets burnt is the floor covering. If you need to don more PPE after the spill occurs, then do so.

Second, let everyone in the area know about the spill, and make sure no one is going to be harmed by it. If it is serious then call the emergency services, or follow any other emergency procedures that you will likely already have in place.

Next, you need to control and contain the spill. Cover drains with drain protectors to keep the nasty substances out of the waterways and get out your spill kit to use the appropriate absorbent materials to contain the spill by building a wall around it. It’s good if you already have floor bunding in the areas where your chemicals are stored - this means there’s already a wall in place to contain any spills.

Lastly, clean up the spill using the appropriate cleaning products. Dispose of the absorbent materials and any other materials (possibly brooms or mops) in the correct manner. Label them as hazardous waste if appropriate. Clean everything thoroughly to avoid further contamination.

Now you have an understanding of the proper way in which to manage hazardous substances from their containment to their clean up. Make sure to do further reading on the Health and Safety laws around this topic and closely review the safety procedures of your own workplace so that you’re well versed in what to do in case of an emergency, and you don’t have your face buried in a rule book during an emergency.