Last reviewed 2 February 2016

Caroline Raine discusses best practices in emergency response and how to be prepared should the worst happen.


As with natural disasters, it is important to be prepared for the possibility of chemical emergencies. The keys to minimising the consequences of any such event are sound preparation and practice — after all, practice makes perfect!

Be aware of the hazards and risks associated with the chemicals that are being transported, and know what to do in the event of a spillage. Hazardous goods can pose a wide range of problems when things go wrong. For example:

  • personal injury may result unless the correct first aid is given

  • chemical reactions can occur if more than one product is involved

  • water courses may become contaminated unless preventative measures are taken.

As such, it is essential that all people handling the chemicals have an emergency response plan that includes appropriate procedures, resources and materials to adequately contain and clean up a chemical spill.

Getting it right

There are a number of sources available to provide information on the products, including product labels and safety data sheets (SDS). When transporting dangerous goods there is a need to ensure that all those involved at any stage of the carriage, including, packing the goods, consigning the goods, and the loading, carriage and unloading, have received function specific training. And of course there is a need to supply spill kits, along with PPE.

Be aware that “not classified as hazardous” does not mean non-hazardous!

If you are not capable of dealing with a chemical incident or do not know what the chemical is, there are a number of expert companies that deal with chemical incidents every day.

Why do you need an effective emergency response system?

Aside from regulatory requirements, there are a good number of reasons why you should have an effective emergency response system in place. Protecting people, the environment and property is the key driver, but brand and client retention is also important; both aid business growth and stakeholder assurance.

Integrated emergency response Levels 1, 2 and 3

When an incident or spillage occurs, the actions of those at the scene can help mitigate the effects to people, the environment and property. Authoritative and calm advice on the correct preventative measures, especially when watercourses could be affected, can ensure that those involved make the right decisions to reduce the environmental, commercial and financial impact of an incident.

There are three recognised stages of response to hazardous goods incidents:

  • Level 1: Specialist advice given over the telephone

  • Level 2: Specialist advice given at the scene

  • Level 3: Clean-up and incident resolution.

Emergency advice given over the telephone is known as Level 1 response. From providing first aid advice to detailed product information, Level 1 advice entails connecting with the necessary expertise to help minimise the impact of any chemical incident. In many cases, expert Level 1 advice over the telephone is sufficient for an incident to be resolved quickly.

Some more serious incidents may require a Level 2 response. Level 2 is advice given at the scene. This advice is often similar to that given at Level 1, but the expert has the added advantage of being able to see exactly the extent of the incident. Level 2 Responders have experience in managing incidents and working with the emergency services. They can co-ordinate response activities at the scene and provide advice to those on the ground.

For larger spills, a Level 3 response will probably be required. Level 3 consists of post incident clean-up, which can be as simple as product recovery and disposal, or be more comprehensive and consist of land decontamination.

Companies that supply hazardous goods are expected under the REACH regulation (Annex II, Guide to the compilation of safety data sheets) to supply the emergency telephone number of the company and/or relevant official advisory body. This phone number may only be available during office hours; if this is the case, it will be clearly stated in Section 1 of the SDS. In some instances that number will be the company’s own number, but many companies subscribe to a Level 1 service where a team of incident advisors are available to provide advice.

In addition to the number provided on Safety Data Sheets, the product label will also have contact details, again giving access to Level 1 advice.

Emergency phone numbers may also be found on transport documentation, and on the orange placards hazard placards on vehicles. Again there are legal requirements around the provision of these numbers.

Level 2 and 3 advice tends to be initiated following seeking Level 1 advice.


Who gets the call when something goes wrong? Have those staff been adequately trained to deal with and understand all of the products you store on site?

Are the emergency response plans regularly tested, and do you carry out exercises? If so, when was the last exercise carried out, did it consider all aspects of the plan and what was learned — if weak points were identified is there an action plan in place to strengthen the weaknesses?

When transporting dangerous goods, think about which parts of the journey are you responsible for; is it all of the journey or only one part? Are your suppliers and partners capabilities in line with your expectations and emergency response policy? Consider the risks to your organisation.

Emergency response planning

The emergency response plan should consider:

  • regulatory compliance — what does the legislation say?

  • transportation — who is responsible? Are plans adequate?

  • chemicals/products being transported — what are the risks?

  • storage/warehousing — are chemicals correctly stored?

  • employees, customers and members of the public — are staff trained in how to handle chemicals (chemical hazard/dangerous goods awareness training) and clear up any spillage (spill response training)?

  • protection of the environment — how will this be achieved?

  • protection of property — how will this be achieved?

Preparing employees

There are a number of actions that can be taken to prepare employees should they find themselves faced with a chemical incident, including:

  • preparation of a spill response and emergency plan

  • training staff — for instance, providing chemical hazard awareness training

  • putting together a spill kit including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  • consulting third party advisors (for instance, subscribing to a Level 1 service).

Staff training

Anyone using or handling hazardous goods should be suitably trained to be aware of the potential risks involved and how to recognise them. Recent changes to hazard label legislation (CLP) means that a whole new suite of warning labels are filtering through into the marketplace. Staff should be aware of what the new images mean and have an understanding of storage, safe handing, PPE, product segregation and spill response.

Spill kits

These should be strategically located around work areas (including vehicles that chemicals are transported in) in fixed locations so they will be easily accessible. Spill kits should be checked periodically and restored after each use. The following is a list of recommended items that should be contained in a chemical spill kit:

  • drain mat

  • absorbent pads

  • absorbent cushions

  • leak-sealing putty

  • soap

  • plastic dustpan and scoop

  • plastic bucket with lid for spill and absorbent residues

  • plastic bags with ties for contaminated materials.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Ensure that the correct PPE is to hand. The following pieces of equipment should be considered:

  • goggles and face shield

  • gloves

  • lab coat and corrosive apron

  • plastic vinyl boots

  • dust mask/respirator (before using a respirator, personnel must be fit tested)

  • spill kit.

The Instructions in Writing (IiW) found in ADR lists all of the equipment and PPE that must be kept in vehicles transporting hazardous goods.

Costs of incidents

Spillages and other incidents involving chemicals can be costly, both directly and indirectly. Indirect costs include business continuity and insurance and reputation while direct costs can easily run into hundreds of thousands, if not more! If the Fire Service, Environment Agency or HSE are involved they can charge for their presence, expensive specialist clear up contractors may be required, fines may be imposed and there may also be legal costs.

The key to a successful emergency response plan is just that: plan, and then practice, practice and practice!