Be prepared with a spill contingency plan

When it comes to spills, the first thoughts might be related to cost of cleanup. There’s the loss of the pesticide product, which is most certainly to be rendered useless, possibly even a hazardous waste requiring expensive disposal techniques. No doubt about it, these thoughts are legitimate, but there’s an intangible cost as well: the damage to the lakes, streams, rivers and soils. Any chemical spills should be cleaned up immediately so the spill can’t reach a storm drain. A third category of cost is the possible damage to the reputation of your company, which is difficult to measure, but real nonetheless.

Therefore, you must be prepared to handle a pesticide spill before you handle a pesticide.

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Tucker,

Training instructions

Be prepared for spills by developing a spill contingency plan. The plan should explain how to prevent spills, who to contact if there is a spill, how to contain the spill, how to clean up the spill and where the where critical or sensitive areas are likely to be

Take a few minutes to put simple clean up instructions in each applicator vehicle and make sure every technician knows where they are. Like a fire drill, it’s wise to randomly ask the driver of a spray rig where the instructions are and if he has read them lately.

Prevent spills

First, do everything you can do to prevent a spill or pesticide accident. The best way to handle a spill is to prevent it from happening. Because accidents most commonly happen when pesticides are being transported, make sure they are secure during transport. Even though it may seem obvious, be sure to drive appropriately for road conditions. Accidents also occur when pesticide containers have leaked in storage, so minimize potential for spillage by installing suitable shelving and lighting in the storage area. Follow laws and safety guidelines when storing pesticides. Utilize a sturdy loading platform where you fill the sprayer. Make sure application equipment does not have faulty hoses or valves, and be sure to mix, load and apply pesticides carefully to minimize the chance of spills.

Big spills and little spills

Any spill is a cause for concern, but one of the first considerations is to determine the exact nature of the accident. When the contents of a spray tank mixture is splashed on to an impervious surface such as a parking lot, driveway or sidewalk near the target area (usually turf or ornamentals), the incident is serious, but far less environmentally damaging than when pesticide concentrates are spilled. Determining precisely what has been misapplied or spilled is important.

Spill kits should be kept in every vehicle that transports pesticides, in the storage area in the shop and at the mixing and loading areas.
Photos by Clyde Ogg, UNL.

The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) provided by a pesticide distributor is a good source of information on how to deal with spills. Before applying any pesticide, read the MSDS thoroughly. MSDS’ typically contain information on the company, the product trade and common names, typical uses, chemical composition, hazard identification, first aid measures, fire fighting measures, accidental release measures, handling and storage, personal protection equipment recommendations, disposal considerations and many other important pieces of information. In terms of spill containment, specifics are usually provided regarding big and little spills. For example, the Dow AgroSciences MSDS for the common turf and ornamental herbicide pendimethalin advises users to barricade the area and consult the manufacturer for larger spills, and clean up small spills with sand, clay, sawdust or other absorbent material and place in suitable fiberboard containers for later disposal, and then to rinse the spill area and tools with soapy water. It also advises to wear suitable protective clothing, contain run-off to prevent entry into water or drainage systems and to advise local water authorities if spillage has entered waterways or drainage systems.

Spill kits

In addition to the clean up instructions, keep a spill cleanup kit in every vehicle that transports pesticides (even the supervisor’s pickup), in the storage area in the shop and at the mixing and loading areas. Kits can be purchased from some pesticide distributors, various Internet sources or can be made from easily obtainable items. Make sure it contains appropriate personal equipment such as unlined rubber gloves, rubber boots, protective eyewear, disposable coveralls and a respirator.

Spill kits also commonly contain dry absorbent material such as sawdust or kitty litter. Commercial absorbent products are also readily available in bulk quantities. A broom or scoop shovel to pick up contaminated materials is a helpful inclusion, as well as a plastic container with a lid to put the contaminated waste in. A set of self adhesive labels and a felt-tip pen come in handy to write the name of the spilled pesticide on the container along with the time and date of the spill. A laminated list of emergency phone numbers should also be included.

General clean-up procedures

If you don’t have quick and ready access to specific information about the pesticide you’ve been working with, these general pesticide cleanup guidelines will be helpful. First, protect yourself against contamination by putting on personal protective gear, including chemical-resistant gloves and disposable coveralls. If a respirator is normally used when applying the pesticide, wear it to clean up the spill. Do not smoke, drink or eat during the clean-up. Work upwind of the spilled material.

Contain spills according to MSDS and product label instructions. Little spills shouldn’t be ignored.

Next, stop the spill from spreading. If a pesticide container, bag, small sprayer or applicator tips over, quickly set it upright to stop more product from spilling out. Surround the spilled pesticide with a barrier so it cannot spread. Use the materials in the spill kit or material such as soil, peat moss, sawdust, newspapers, etc. Absorb or soak up as much liquid pesticide as possible. Products sold as “snakes” or “pillows” are useful for this purpose. Don’t use absorbent material if a dry pesticide formulation was spilled.

Consider the location of the spill. If it occurred inside, ventilate the area by opening doors and windows and using fans to move air. Spills that occur in trafficked areas should be managed by keeping bystanders and animals away from the spill. Do not let people walk or drive through the spilled material. Generally, avoid applying water to a pesticide spill, as it will spread the contaminants further.

Dry pesticide spills should be swept up and placed into an empty waterproof container designed exclusively for this purpose. The container should be labeled with information about the name of the pesticide, the date of the spill and the person who cleaned up the spill. Spills that occur on bare soil should be disposed of similarly, with the contaminated soil placed in a container and labeled. Replace the excavated soil with clean soil from another site.

Clean the contaminated area by following recommendations from the MSDS. Many pesticide spills can be cleaned with a mixture of bleach, detergent and water, but not all. Use a small amount of liquid to clean the area; the more liquid you use, the more that must be disposed of. Put the cleaning water/mixture in the container as well.

Finally, decontaminate all equipment that may have been used in the cleanup. Remove and wash the personal protective equipment. Change personal clothing and launder it as soon as possible in hot water and heavy-duty detergent. Wash yourself as well, showering with hot water and lots of soap. When finished, restock the spill kit.

Accidental chemical spills can happen even when taking precautions. Turf managers should plan for it to minimize personal and environmental injury.

The author is a horticulturist and certified arborist located in Omaha, Neb.