Spills: Should you absorb them, contain them or both?

It may sound crazy, but at New Pig, we hesitate when someone asks, “How many mats and socks will I need to absorb a 5,000-gallon spill?”

It’s not that we can’t do the math. We do know exactly how many mats and socks it would take. We also know how many pallets it will take to get that order out the door and how much space you’re going to need to store all of those absorbents. We can also give you a pretty close estimate on the number of drums of waste you’ll generate if you use your entire stash to absorb a spill. 
It’s just that when it comes to spill response, absorbents may not be the only things that you need in your arsenal.
Yes, spill kits and absorbents are a great choice for small spills. They’re convenient, they have the products you need to get the job done quickly and it’s fairly easy to train everyone to use them. But if you’ve got the potential for spills of more than 200 gallons, you might want to step back and look at what else you can use to complement your overall spill response program.
Government regulations require companies be prepared for spills and releases. It’s up to you, however, to choose how you’ll prepare and what tools, supplies and training you need since there isn’t a requirement to absorb the entire volume of your worst-case scenario spill. 
As you consider different options — which can range anywhere from a case of paper towels and a box of sawdust to spill kits, to explosion-proof vacuums and a contracted hazmat response team — look for ways to prevent spills from becoming a crisis in the first place.
One of the ways to do that is to view secondary containment as a tool in your spill response belt. Secondary containment is any basin, tray, berm, wall, dike or other device that keeps a spill from spreading. If you’ve ever wrapped a handful of napkins around the bottom of a leaking waffle cone, that’s secondary containment. And if you can manage that mint chocolate chip dribble — it’s not much harder to hold back 5,000 gallons when you have the right kind of secondary containment.

First, take a look at all of the areas where large volumes of liquids are stored at your facility.

They might be in tanks, drums, dip basins or even areas hidden inside large machines or equipment. They could also be indoors or outdoors.

Next, consider the most likely spills that could occur in each area.

If spills occur during a bulk transfer, there is dribble from the hose on a drum pump or loss of a hydraulic reservoir, chances are spill kits and absorbents are a good fit.

Now, look at what will happen if the worst-case scenario happens.

This is where secondary containment usually kicks in as a more viable spill response option. If the primary container fails, secondary containment is what keeps the spill within the pallet, berm or barrier. Yes, there’s still going to be a mess to clean up, but that mess will be contained to a defined area. It’s not entering storm drains, causing pollution or extending the length of downtime for the folks in your production or warehouse areas.
When spills happen, the first thing that needs to be done is to ensure worker safety. That means evacuating employees (if necessary) and protecting anyone who will be responding to the spill. The next step is to contain the spill. If secondary containment is already in use and is properly sized for the job, this step should not require additional manpower.
Contained spills give responders the luxury of having a moment to decide the best way to tackle cleanup. Secondary containment also provides the options of absorbing, vacuuming, pumping, neutralizing or doing whatever else might need to be done to restore the situation to pre-spill conditions.
Any spill can be riddled with complexities, which is why pre-planning is so important. Having a variety of options available and making sure that anyone responding to a spill is properly trained can mean the difference between an inconvenience and a really, really bad day.