Fuel spillages need fast attention when they occur. They can be catastrophic for environment, and their effects can spread much farther than just the patch of land where the specific spill occurred.
Swift responses to fuel spillages are essential for effective remediation, but the greatest focus should always be given to preventing these accidents from happening in the first place. Find out how to avoid fuel spillages and what should be done if one does occur.
What causes fuel spills?
Usually, the major factor in a fuel spillage is negligence. Accidents do happen, and sometimes there’s not much that could have been done, like in the case of a faulty fuel tank or accident caused by somebody coming into the site.
There are many ways in which fuel spills can happen, but most of these can be mitigated by having proper health and safety procedures in place and by exercising caution whenever working with, or around, fuel.
Given the main uses of fuel, spills will usually take place in relation to vehicles, tools, or machinery such as generators. There are many contexts and types of location where fuel may be spilled, including but not limited to:
One of the most obvious contexts that might see a fuel spillage is during road traffic accidents, given that the vast majority of vehicles on the road still utilise either petrol or diesel fuel to run. Collisions can cause fuel tanks to rupture or leak in a number of ways.
Additionally, lorries on the road that are transporting fuel could be overturned or damaged in an incident, pouring huge quantities of fuel directly onto the ground. Even lorries that aren’t transporting fuel have tanks large enough to deposit hundreds of litres of fuel if ruptured.
Construction sites are often rife with fuel spill hazards. Large, powerful vehicles like excavators can sport tanks holding a hundred litres or more. Generators that run off fuel might also be present on site, as well as petrol-powered tools.
Given the uneven ground present on many construction sites, extra care needs to be taken when driving vehicles and ensuring that fuel tanks are placed on solid, level surfaces.
Petrol and diesel pumps at fuel stations have some safety designed into their nozzles to prevent overfilling vehicle tanks, but they can still cause spillages or leak. Petrol is highly flammable, and accidents during refuel visits can cause large spillages.
Damaged hoses and pumps might even cause small leaks that, if left to persist over time, can become larger problems that aren’t detected until they’ve started to cause damage.
There are many other places in which fuel could be spilt: at private residences, airports, ports, and a wide range of places of business.
No matter the place of fuel storage, following best practice and exercising proper caution at all times minimises the risks of fuel spills.
Petroleum-based fuels, being thin and oily, can spread easily and disperse through the environment with ease, particularly when giving off fumes. This can make spills harder to clean up than they might initially seem.
What are the hazards of a fuel spill?
Fuel spills come with many hazards, some that present themselves immediately, others that can occur or worsen from a slow or inadequate response.
The most immediate and well-known risk of spilt fuels is that they are flammable liquids. Diesel fuel is not as flammable as petrol, but it is nevertheless classified as a flammable liquid due to its flashpoint, and regardless remains a combustible liquid.
Aviation fuel is formulated to give off little vapour, reducing its risk of ignition, but it can still combust. Petrol gives off heavy vapour that mixes with oxygen to create its highly flammable nature, which is why petrol creates such a strong smell that spreads easily in the air.
Spillages of fuels like petrol can suddenly turn their surrounding area into a space full of hazards. Sources of heat, friction, and electrical sparks all present risks of ignition that could cause fire or explosion.
Flammability is not the only risk presented by spilt fuels, though. Fuel can kill or cause harm to plants and wildlife, and if it enters waterways, can kill aquatic life too. These risks can easily extend to humans if fuel is able to enter drinking water supplies.
Fuels are toxic and their presence in soil needs to be remedied using specialist care as quickly as possible before they can wreak real environmental damage.
Fumes and fuel vapour can also be a health hazard to those in the area, affecting the eyes and airways. Additionally, petroleum is highly slick—being an oily substance—presenting severe slipping hazards when spilt onto solid ground surfaces.
This can be hazardous to both individuals walking on foot and vehicles trying to traverse the area.
Apart from the health and safety hazards presented by a fuel spill, there’s also the matter of professional reputation and public opinion. Large-scale or disruptive fuel spills can easily sour the perspective of a business or contractor, particularly if the spill occurs in close vicinity to homes or public spaces like parks and beaches.
When to get help with a fuel spill
Minor spills in a small area that can be mostly if not entirely handled with absorbent materials are likely no cause for alarm, unless the fuel also enters a waterway in the process.
However, larger spills demand more serious attention, and you will need to reach out to an expert site clearance specialist to appraise the situation and take control of clean up.
There is no hard and fast answer as to when a fuel spill becomes a ‘large’ spill, and when it becomes serious enough to need professional attention.
When managing a site, use your best judgement and common sense to ascertain the risks from a fuel spillage incident but it’s always best to reach out and seek professional help. This allows a land remediation specialist to inspect the site and give you an experienced judgement.
Often we can point out problems and hazards that you may not be aware of, like the presence of groundwater or the true extent of the spill. Additionally, taking care of the land in the wake of spilt fuel is more than simply using absorbent materials, and chemical clean up may be necessary to properly get rid of any lingering traces of liquid fuel.
Tips to avoid a fuel spillage
How to best avoid fuel spillages depends heavily on exercising appropriate caution and following best practice.
Many actions that can be taken to minimise the risk of fuel spills are small but critical. These include:
Checking fuel tanks
Fuel tanks should always be checked for signs of corrosion and damage. Even minor drips should be investigated, as the smallest leaks can cause problems and grow in severity over time.
Additionally, caps and covers should be checked to ensure they seal tightly and fully. Tanks feeding tools and vehicles should be firmly attached, and freestanding tanks must be placed on solid, level ground away from any risks of collisions and ignition.
Check hoses, clamps, and any attached apparatus for damage or poor fitting as well.
When decanting fuel from one container to another, it should be done with full attention and care. Gloves and necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) should be worn, and individuals shouldn’t try to lift heavy tanks on their own.
When transferring fuel, absorbent pads can be used to cover potential leaks around nozzles and caps.
Organisation and planning
When not in use, fuel should be stored in a safe and specific location where it can be retrieved as needed. Without a designated place for fuel storage, tanks may end up left and forgotten until they’re knocked over or damaged.
By clearly delineating the process for storing and accessing fuel, the risk of tanks being misplaced is minimised.
Even with robust practices and signage, it can’t be expected that everybody in a workplace will be aware of what they’re risking by flouting safety precautions.
Therefore, educating all individuals who might come into contact is essential. Everybody needs to be on the same page regarding fuel safety—not only so that they can make the safest choices independently, but also so that they can identify hazards caused by others and ensure that they’re remediated immediately.
How to handle a fuel spillage once it happens
Safety of personnel and containment of the spill are the two foremost factors when a fuel spillage takes places.
Ensure that everybody clears the area and that potential sources of ignition are switched off. If the source of the leak can be safely sealed or the leak can be temporarily stemmed with a container, then this is a good idea while you wait for the help of a qualified expert in land remediation.
If you have a fuel spill kit to hand, you can use the absorbent apparatus included in it to soak up puddles of fuel and protect any nearby drains.
If fuel has soaked into loose ground such as soil, there’s little to be done beyond laying down absorbent pads before a land remediation specialist needs to take over.
It’s strongly advised not to attempt clean up with anything other than absorbent material when a fuel spill occurs. Water and oil famously don’t mix, and so attempting to wash away spilt fuel may end up simply carrying it farther and washing it down into drains, making clean up more complicated and worsening the reach and effects of the spill.
Who can help with a fuel spill?
When a fuel spill occurs, don’t hope that it’ll simply ‘wash away’ and ignore it.
DHI Excavations are experts in land remediation and clean up, helping to contain and remedy fuel and oil spills, hazardous materials, and more. Everything we do, we do with a central focus on protecting the environment and giving you the best advice and service.
To speak to our expert team and arrange a visit to your site, don’t hesitate to contact us today.