Seven Step Spill Response for the New Responder

Sept. 2, 2007
Do your first responders know how to respond to spills, and where they fit in the larger scope of spill response?

When new spill responders are being taught to respond to spills, a lot of time wisely is spent sharing tricks of the trade and discussing the details of the equipment that commonly is used during spill responses.

It is equally important to step back and be absolutely certain that new spill responders also understand the proper sequence of responding to spills, and how the details of the information being shared with them fit into the larger scope of spill response.

Although each spill response is unique, there is a series of steps that can be taken during every response. Sharing these steps with new responders can help them understand the sequence of responding to a spill as well as the precautions they need to take to keep themselves safe before, during and after a response.

Step One: Assess the Risk

Life safety is the No. 1 priority in any spill response. This often is one of the first rules that a new responder is taught. Unfortunately, this can lead some new responders – as well as some seasoned veterans – to rush to save a victim before properly protecting themselves.

Instructing new responders to “stop, look and listen” before responding is essential. Present them with several scenarios and ask them to tell you what they would do first. Procedures can vary based on the emergency. For example, if the new responder is part of a facility spill response team, and there is a noxious gas leak, their first duty may be to don a gas mask, sound an alarm and go outside to account for all personnel before “real” response begins.

If a liquid has spilled, the duty of spill responders may be to try to identify the material (if it is safe to do so), cordon the area and page the emergency response team. They also may be taught to look for victims, if the nature of the spill has been determined and it will not harm them to be in the area.

Teaching new responders not to rush to help victims is a large part of this. Helping someone who is hurt is almost instinctive, and it is very difficult to recondition people to stop before acting on this instinct. At the same time, however, it is important the responder be taught to gather as much information as possible so that response can be hastened.

Things that new responders should be taught to look for when assessing the risk are: victims (number and location,) sources of a spill or gas leak – if, of course, it is safe to determine this – and anything else that is unusual. Being able to report these details will help the incident commander determine the course of action.

Step Two: Protect Yourself

Some responders have put respirator together so many times that they can do it blindfolded. This is an impressive talent, and one that could come in handy from time to time. For a new responder, however, it is more important to have an understanding of what types of respirators are available, as well as when and how each will be used. Sharing the importance of what personal protective equipment (PPE) can – and cannot – do is an important step in training.

New responders should gain a general understanding of how PPE protects them from various dangers that they may face. Even on larger teams, where a safety officer may select gear for the responders, it is still important for them to know why each piece is chosen and how it protects them.

This also is an opportunity to share the small details that everyone has come to know through the ages, like how to keep your faceshield from fogging, or the secret to getting an air monitor to work properly.

Help new responders realize that PPE doesn’t make them invincible. Show them the chinks in the armor. For example, let them see how a suit wears at the elbows and knees, or how the hoses on a breathing apparatus wear over time. They also should be taught that if they don’t know what a spill is, they need to assume the worst and be sure that they have adequate protection before responding.

Step Three: Confine the Spill

After due attention has been paid to safety, teaching the basics of spill response can begin. The sooner a spill is contained, the smaller the area that will need to be cleaned.

It is important to tell new responders that spill terminology can vary. When a spill is confined with an earthen material, the term “dam” often is used. If the barrier is an absorbent or other man-made barrier, “dike” is a common term. The two terms are heard interchangeably, however, and new responders should be taught this so that they can relate to the terms being used by outside responders or others who they may work with in the future.

Practice a variety of spill confinement techniques. Demonstrate how to overlap absorbent booms and stack sandbags if they are commonly used to confine a spill. Teach responders how to quickly cover drains to prevent spills from leaving a facility or area.

If the new responder is permitted to create earthen dams with bulldozers or other equipment, allow enough practice time for him or her to become comfortable using this equipment.

Knowing how to use commonly found materials to create dikes and dams is also important to helping control the spill zone and protecting both life and natural resources. This also is a good time to teach new responders about establishing hot, warm and cold zones.

Step Four: Stop the Source

Chances are, if the spill is small the source will be stopped prior to response. For larger spills, a working knowledge of patch and repair tactics is valuable. Even something as simple as turning off a valve can be complicated by not knowing where the nearest shut-off is located.

Patch and repair items can range from golf tees and duct tape (use the golf tee to plug a small hole and hold it in place with duct tape) to complex caps designed to patch pressurized gas tank valves. As with dams and dikes, learning how to use readily available items will help speed up this part of response.

Pre-measured epoxy sticks, clay-based patches, tourniquets and pipe wraps are common patch and repair items that should be reviewed during training so that they can be easily used during an actual response.

Step Five: Evaluate and Implement Cleanup

For large spills, once the liquid has been contained and the source of the spill stopped, the incident commander or spill team leader sometimes has the luxury of taking a moment to re-evaluate the situation and determine the best and safest course of action.

Vacuums are one method of cleaning up large-volume spills. The benefits are speed and the ability to recover the spilled liquids for potential reuse. When vacuums are used, however, new responders should be taught how to match the vacuum to the spill. For example, spills of mercury or flammable materials require vacuums built specifically for those purposes. Standard wet/dry vacs will not be safe.

Absorbing spills is another common method of response. Mats, socks, pillows, booms, dikes and loose absorbents typically are found in spill response kits, and each serves a different purpose during response.

Teaching new responders how to choose the best absorbent for the task will help minimize wastes and speed clean up. For example, in a large open area where the spill has been contained and is not very deep, mats are a good choice. However, if the spill is deeper, pillows will probably be more efficient. Loose absorbents may be reserved for areas that are hard to reach with mats. These take longer to clean up than mats, socks and pillows; and are generally not as efficient.

As new responders are being taught to actually clean up the spill, remind them of the importance of continuing to monitor the air and performing other safety checks.

Step Six: Decontamination

If the first rule of response is life safety, a close second would have to be stressing the importance of setting up decontamination lines before a response begins. The 10-second version of this “rule” is that anything leaving the hot zone needs to go through decon. The reality, of course, is that like everything else about spill response, there is much more to it than that.

It is fairly common for new responders to work on decontamination lines. In many ways, this is a wise first step. They can gain experience working in suits and other unfamiliar PPE, and they can learn about protecting themselves against hazards without being directly exposed to the spill.

Hazards still exist when working in a decon line, and in addition to the chemical hazards being brought out from the hot zone, new responders also need to be aware of heat stress, dehydration and other common ailments, as well as how to properly handle wastes being created, such as spent PPE and the wastewater generated from wet decontamination procedures.

Step Seven: Reporting

Typically, new responders won’t be responsible for filling out federal, state or local spill notifications or reports. However, they do need to be aware of common paperwork that follows most spill response.

Medical reports, lists of materials used, expense receipts, evaluations and de-brief questionnaires are examples of reporting that even new responders should be taught to complete and file properly.

Even though these responders are new, their insight during a de-brief can be quite valuable because they may see a new way of doing something that has been overlooked for years.

Avoiding “What’s Next?”

When children are being taught something new, they often complete one step of the task and want to immediately know “what’s next?” This can be frustrating for both the child and the person teaching him.

When new responders understand the steps of spill response, they know what they need to do to protect themselves, and what process will be followed. They can anticipate the next step of the response and will understand when and why they may need to wait instead of forging ahead.

Karen D. Hamel is the technical education manager for New Pig Corp. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and has over 12 years of experience helping EHS professionals find solutions to their environmental, health and safety issues. She is HAZWOPER technician level certified and serves in the Blair County, Pa. LEPC. She can be reached at 1-800-HOT-HOGS (468-4647) or by Email to [email protected].

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