Workplace Solutions Spills

‘Spill’ or ‘release’? Know the difference

What is the difference between a “spill” and a “release”?


Responding is Karen D. Hamel, CSP, WACH, regulatory compliance professional, trainer and technical writer, New Pig Corp., Tipton, PA.

Many people, and even regulatory agencies, use the terms “spill” and “release” interchangeably. In some cases, they are synonymous, but in others, the difference between the two terms means the change from simply cleaning up a nuisance puddle to potentially facing a large fine and lengthy remediation.

A simple way to think about a spill is a puddle forming as a result of a substance leaking from its container, pipe or hose. Now, if that spill leaves your property and enters the environment, it’s a release.

Regulatory agencies require facilities to be prepared for spills. In most cases, the facility needs to have plans, procedures and equipment available to handle a worst-case scenario. Facilities may choose how they want to be prepared, and it’s up to them to create plans, procedures, etc., that work best for their particular facility.

Facilities that are well prepared to handle spills are less likely to have a release, because if their plans, procedures and equipment work, they should be able to contain and control a spill before it leaves their property. A few regulations pertain to especially toxic chemicals that require any spill to be reported, but in most cases, facilities only need to make notifications if they have a release of a reportable quantity to the environment.

Facilities need to train their employees on how to identify both incidental and emergency spills, as well as what they need to do when they create or discover a spill. Whether they should evacuate the area and notify a supervisor or they should suit up and get ready to contain, control and clean up the spill, having a plan and being prepared helps prevent spills from becoming releases.

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