Chemical Spills in Laboratories
Be prepared with proper training, cleanup supplies and personal protective equipment to manage spills easily and safely.
If you work with chemicals, you will probably have a chemical spill at some point. Your safety, and the safety of others, depends on your assessment and response.
To assess whether you and your fellow researchers are prepared to manage a chemical spill, consider these questions:
Questions to prepare for a chemical spill
Everyone should complete chemical safety training and be familiar with the hazards of the chemicals they use, protective measures, emergency protocols and waste management requirements. Our Managing Laboratory Chemicals course is an introduction to chemical safety for lab staff; staff members may need additional chemical specific training depending on their work.
Each lab should have a chemical spill cleanup kit. UW chemical spill kits are available for purchase through Ariba and contain five universal spill pads to absorb acids, bases, solvents and oil; a one-pound box of baking soda for neutralizing acids; four heavy-duty hazardous waste bags; one pair of SilverShield gloves; eight pair of nitrile gloves; one pair of goggles; a packet of waste collection labels; a dust pan and brush kit; and a hazardous waste collection form. The entire kit comes inside a five-gallon bucket with a screw-top lid for easy storage.
The mercury spill kit is great for cleaning up a small volume of mercury on a smooth surface, while a specialized mercury vacuum works well for larger mercury spills. For more information on mercury spills, visit our Mercury web page.
Make sure the lab has calcium gluconate gel available in case of a skin exposure, and calcium gluconate emergency eyewash in case of an eye exposure. See more information on the safe use of hydrofluoric acid on the Hydrofluoric Acid Focus Sheet.
Staff need to protect themselves from skin, eye and respiratory exposures during cleanup operations.
- If the risk of injury is low, a lab coat, silver shield gloves or other chemical compatible glove material, and safety goggles are the minimum personal protective gear staff need to manage most chemical spills.
- Tyvek coveralls, rubber apron or disposable shoe covers may be needed when managing certain types of materials.
- Spills outside of a fume hood and large-quantity spills are higher risk, especially if the chemical is reactive, highly volatile, corrosive, toxic, carcinogenic or a reproductive toxicant. Respiratory protection is often needed in these incidents, and the use of respirators requires prior fit testing, training and a medical evaluation.
Consult with EH&S when there is a risk of exposure or injury before beginning a chemical spill cleanup.
Order a spill kit
EH&S has created a general purpose spill kit customized for chemical spills up to about one gallon in volume. It is available at the Chemistry Store and the Biochemistry Store. You can also order it from VWR through Ariba for about $40. Instructions for ordering spill kits are available on the Ordering Spill Kits Focus Sheet.
The general purpose spill kit is not sufficient for large spills or mercury spills. For mercury spills, see our Mercury Spills Focus Sheet.
If you work with hydrofluoric acid, you will need to have calcium gluconate gel on hand in case of skin exposures. For more information on hydrofluoric acid, see our Hydrofluoric Acid Focus Sheet.
Stay safe after a chemical spill
When a chemical spills:
- Call 911 for any life-threatening emergency.
- Use the eye wash or safety shower for 15 minutes if exposed. Remove contaminated clothing.
- Evacuate the area by pulling the fire alarm (if there is a risk of exposure or injury).
Cleaning up a chemical spill:
- Call the Chemical Spill Line at 206.543.0467 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
- EH&S is available to consult on chemical spills and emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
- After normal business hours call 911 on the Seattle Campus. UW Police Department will put you in contact with after-hours EH&S staff.
EH&S can arrange for a hazardous materials spill cleanup contractor at the lab’s expense if the spill is large, involves a risk of exposure or injury, or the cleanup otherwise exceeds your lab’s abilities.
- For small spills, use your lab’s chemical spill kit for cleanup.
- Follow Biohazardous Spills guidance for spills involving biohazards.
To speak with a medical professional after a spill, call the Employee Health Center at 206.685.1026 to set up an appointment. At Harborview Medical Center call 206.744.3081, and at UW Medical Center call 206.598.4848. After normal business hours, if an employee has a work-related medical injury/illness/exposure, they should seek care at the UW Medicine UW Medical Center or call UWMC Emergency Medical Services at 206.598.4000.
Safely dispose of spill clean-up waste
Waste generated during a chemical spill cleanup is usually a hazardous waste and must be contained, labeled and disposed of properly. Here are a few exceptions:
- Neutralized acid spills can be soaked up in absorbent material such as paper towels. Follow trash and sink disposal guidelines for proper disposal.
- Solid and nonhazardous chemicals can be double-bagged, labeled as nonhazardous waste and placed in the trash.
EH&S provides the following services:
Consultation on spill cleanup
Hire a spill cleanup contractor
Provide training on safe use of chemicals
Frequently asked questions
If your injuries are potentially life-threatening, call 9-1-1 and wait for responders to arrive.
To speak with a medical professional regarding a potential chemical exposure, call the Employee Health Center at 206.685.1026.
Yes, EH&S requires labs to have a chemical spill kit. Don’t forget to restock or replace your chemical spill kit after use. Purchase replacement parts for the spill kit through Ariba and VWR.
No. EH&S can advise on spill cleanup methods and procedures, but does not clean up chemical spills. EH&S can hire a spill cleanup contractor at the lab’s expense to manage a chemical spill.
UW chemical spill kits are available for purchase through Ariba and contain five universal spill pads to absorb acids, bases, solvents and oil; a one-pound box of baking soda for neutralizing acids; four heavy-duty hazardous waste bags; a pair of SilverShield gloves; eight pair of nitrile gloves; a pair of goggles; a packet of waste collection labels; a dust pan and brush kit, and a hazardous waste collection form. The entire kit comes inside a five-gallon bucket with a screw-top lid.