Lessons Learned: Large Solvent Waste Spill
Equipment was being installed in a lab when a flammable storage cabinet was inadvertently bumped, causing a partially full 4-liter solvent waste bottle inside the cabinet to be knocked over. The bottle broke and spilled organic solvents within the chemical storage cabinet and on the floor.
Methanol, chloroform, acetonitrile, and ethyl acetate made up the bulk of the contents of the bottle. The lab cleaned up as much of the spill as possible from the floor and in the cabinet using absorbent pads. They left a few additional absorbent pads in the cabinet to soak up the remaining spill. They then placed the soaked pads in the garbage can, closed the plastic garbage bag, left the room, and called the Fire Department to report the spill.
The Fire Department contacted EH&S and the Industrial Hygiene (IH) team responded to the scene. Their instruments did not detect any volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at the doors to the hallway or the room adjacent to the lab, indicating that the solvent vapors associated with the spill had been contained to the room. All labs should have negative airflow (air flowing inward from hallway) in order to contain vapors and odors and, in this case, the negative airflow functioned as intended to minimize impact to the surrounding area.
In consultation with the PI, it was decided to lock the lab and display signs on the doors preventing any personnel from entering the area for a period of at least 48 hours. During this time, it was expected that the remaining residual vapors would dissipate to levels low enough to handle the solvents without additional respiratory protection.
The IH team re-inspected the room after 48 hours. The VOC concentrations in the room were at normal levels, but the VOC concentrations inside the garbage can were still high enough to warrant precautions.
The PI, who was already enrolled in the respiratory protection program, was instructed to wear an air purifying respirator with volatile organics cartridge, as well as other PPE such as nitrile gloves and a lab coat, to soak up the remaining solvent in the cabinet with additional absorbent pads. The PI was then instructed to deposit the pads in the garbage bag and follow the usual chemical waste procedure to generate tags for the garbage bag and the rest of the waste bottles. They held this waste in the fume hood until the Hazardous Waste Management group picked it up.
The IH Team visited the lab again 72 hours after the incident and confirmed that VOC levels in the space were within acceptable ranges before clearing the lab for re-entry and use.
Due in large part to the quick actions of the PI, this incident was swiftly resolved. They reacted to the spill by cleaning it as best they could and leaving the area. The PI also understood that the content and quantity of the chemical spill could pose a hazard to themselves and their team and decided to call the Fire Department and EH&S for support. Thanks to the collaborative effort of various University groups, the spill was quickly assessed and contained without any further incidents. After a few days, the PI’s new equipment was installed and the laboratory was re-opened to staff and students.
What went right?
The lab had airflow that was negative (flowing in) from the hallway, so the vapors were contained within the lab. Without this, surrounding areas may have had to be evacuated.
The lab called the fire department.
The waste bottle was properly labeled so that the contents and hazards could be determined quickly.
There was a fully stocked spill kit with absorbent pads.
The lab was aware of spill procedures.
What should have been done differently?
The liquid waste should have been in a secondary container. This would have contained the spill and made clean-up easy.
The absorbent pads soaked with solvent should have been bagged and labeled as hazardous waste initially, and stored in the fume hood until pickup, rather than placed in the regular trash.
How to prevent this in the future:
The high-traffic area where equipment was being installed could have been emptied of waste and chemicals during the installation.