From rags and fabric wipes to granulars, booms, pillows, socks and more, there are dozens of different types of absorbent products available. When a chemical spill occurs in the workplace, workers should use these items to contain and eventually clean it. As the name suggests, absorbent products absorb liquids, preventing spilled chemicals from further contaminating the workplace.
But what happens to these products after they are used to absorb chemicals? Sending chemical-soaked rags and wipes to a “normal” laundry facility could result in the chemical flushing into the municipal sewer system, and simply tossing them in the trash could result in a fire due to the possibility of spontaneous combustion.
Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Public Safety and Security wrote the following on its website:
“Oily rags that get folded or balled up and tossed on the floor have the danger of going through a process that starts with oxidation. As the oil is drying on the rag, it produces heat, and air gets trapped in the folds or balled up portions. Heat and oxygen are combined in addition to the rag, which is usually made of combustible cloth that can become a source of fuel. Heat, oxygen and fuel are all that is needed to create a fire, which is why oily rags that are not disposed of properly can create a fire that people are not prepared for.”
As noted on the Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Public Safety and Security website, oil-soaked rags generate heat and oxygen: two key components for fire. Even if there’s no visible flame or source of heat nearby, oak-soaked rags may catch fire when balled up and tossed on the floor or in the trash.
Reusable absorbent products, such as rags and certain types of wipes, can be effectively laundered. However, business owners should contact the laundry facility beforehand to determine whether or not they will accept them. Most industrial laundry facilities are fully trained to properly clean chemical-soaked rags and reusable wipes, allowing businesses to continue using them.
If the rag or wipe is contaminated with a “hazardous chemical other than oil,” the business owner should contact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more information on how to properly dispose of it. The EPA recommends businesses keep two separate stacks of used rags and absorbent products: one for non-hazardous chemicals, and another one for hazardous chemicals.