Last reviewed 9 May 2017

In this article, Caroline Raine discusses the best approach to making an emergency response to accidents involving chemicals. She also takes a particular look at the response to incidents involving lithium batteries, which are relatively new to the world of dangerous goods.

Introduction

The first few minutes of an accident or incident involving chemicals is critical, often the actions taken in the first 10–15 minutes of an incident determines whether the outcome will be positive. In the event of chemical exposure time is most definitely of the essence.

When dealing with incidents the message must always be to take into account the following areas: People; Environment; Asset; Reputation — or PEAR, for short. This handy acronym is based on the priorities of the public.

People

The welfare of personnel and others is always the first thing to consider. If exposure has occurred, then precautions must be taken to minimise the risk to the individual or individuals.

First aid actions to take will depend upon the chemical and the form that the casualty has been exposed to. Liquids are normally required to be washed off with copious amounts of water, removing all contaminated clothing including jewellery. Medical assistance should then be sought. For exposure to eyes, the contaminated eye or eyes should be rinsed for at least 15 minutes and medical attention should be sought quickly. Some chemicals require additional treatment, for example, exposure to hydrofluoric acid requires the application of calcium gluconate and the exposure of chemicals to eyes have different treatments depending upon the pH.

Exposure to solids can be dealt with by either brushing off the chemical (taking care not to inhale the dust) or washing, again with copious amounts of water, again medical advice should be sought.

Finally, for inhalation exposure the casualty should be removed from the scene to an area of fresh air and medical advice should be sought.

When deciding upon the first aid action to take, there are a number of sources of information that can be helpful including the product safety data sheet (SDS) or the Instructions in Writing (IiW) which can be found in the driver’s cab.

Environment

It is then important to protect the impact of the consequences to the environment. When dealing with a spillage the chemical must not be allowed to enter into any watercourses, for example rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, etc. Therefore spills should not be allowed to spread and the use of chemical booms and absorbent pads can help to prevent the movement of spillages. If specialist equipment is not available the use of soil or sand can make a good barrier. Drains should be sealed to prevent chemicals entering into them, they can be sealed with specialist drain covers or a bin liner and brick would do the trick too! Vehicles transporting dangerous goods are required to carry equipment to help the driver in the event of a spillage and this includes a shovel, drain seal and a collecting container along with some basic personal protective equipment (PPE) including eye protection and gloves. If a spillage occurs on site there may be inceptor drains in place and the chemical can be contained within the tanks.

Once the chemical is contained the clear up can commence. Liquids can either be absorbed with absorbent material or be pumped into suitable containers; solids can be swept or vacuumed. The exposed area can be washed down using water — the washings must be collected. Both the chemical and any washings must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

When using pumps, if the chemical is flammable an intrinsically safe pump must be used.

Asset

The term asset can be used to describe an item or items of property owned by the company. Assets are generally regarded as having value which may include buildings and their contents, vehicles and their contents and equipment. Although assets are often insured it is still important to companies to minimise the impact of damage during an incident. Once the risks to people and the environment have been mitigated the risks to the company’s assets can be considered. In some cases this may be easy and may involve moving vehicles, contents or equipment away from the scene and, in other cases, especially when fire is involved, it may be much more difficult and loss may in fact be inevitable.

Reputation

Reputation is key to the survival of a business. In such a competitive world, chemical marketplace companies must ensure that their reputation remains intact. Just because things have gone wrong and there has been an accident doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of reputation, but the actions that are taken can. Companies should work with all the key stakeholders to make sure that the most appropriate actions are taken. At the scene of an incident, key stakeholders may include many different parties, for example the injured party or parties, land owners, Highways Agency, fire service, ambulance crew, police, Environment Agency, the driver, members of the public and possibly even the media. Working closely with all parties to obtain the best possible outcome is key. Communicating with customers and members of the public is also essential and many companies now have a media team who will liaise with the press and release updates through social media.

Post incident a full investigation must be carried out to ensure that lessons are learned, and plans and actions are put in place to make sure that it does not happen again.

Lithium batteries

Chemical accidents and incidents occur and have done for years, which is why the chemical industry is so heavily regulated. More recently, incidents have started to involve lithium batteries, which are relatively new to the world of dangerous goods. Lithium batteries are used in everyday technology from laptops, phones and tablets to portable equipment and medical devices as well as in cars.

Over the past few years there have been a number of very serious incidents involving lithium batteries, the most catastrophic have been on aeroplanes. As a result, the transportation of them in planes is very heavily regulated. Lithium batteries are not only a danger in aircraft, but also in road, rail and sea transport and also when in storage.

One incident occurred in July 2007, when a huge lithium battery fire resulted in two major UK motorways being closed and more than 132,000 litres of chemicals being set alight. The site was storing lithium batteries ready for recycling and it is believed that they spontaneously ignited.

Incidents involving lithium batteries can quickly escalate and so the need to act quickly is especially important when lithium batteries are involved.

Always keep sand, or soil, or a Class “D” fire extinguisher nearby as, in the event of a possible fire, the batteries should be smothered with dry sand or covered with contents from a Class “D” fire extinguisher. The use of a Class “D” fire extinguisher is the preferred extinguishing method.

Avoid all contact with water and do not use Halon extinguishers as toxic gases will be generated. When the material has apparently burned and cooled, carefully turn over the remaining residue but be prepared as it may re-ignite. Therefore, be ready to re-extinguish should a re-ignition occur.

Disposal of lithium batteries

Special precautions and procedures are necessary for lithium polymer batteries. Undamaged batteries should be discharged and stored safely in salt water; the detailed procedure is given below.

  • Place the lithium polymer battery in a fireproof container or bucket of sand.

  • Connect the battery to a lithium polymer discharger and discharge safely until its voltage reaches 1.0V per cell or lower. For resistive load type discharges, discharge the battery for up to 24 hours.

  • Prepare a bucket or tub containing three to five gallons of cold water, and mix in 1/2 cup of salt per gallon of water. This container should have a lid, but it does not need to be airtight.

  • Drop the battery into the salt water. Allow the battery to remain in the tub of salt water for at least two weeks.

  • Remove the lithium polymer battery from the salt water and dispose of as hazardous waste.

Damaged batteries should be placed directly into salt water and disposed of as hazardous waste.