Skip to main content

Responding to Biological Spills

Clean up sharps with cardboard
Biological Spill: Sharps can be cleaned with up forceps or cardboard

Immediate decontamination is important following the spill of a biological substance, whether it is a cell line, human or animal blood or other bodily fluids, viral vector, recombinant/synthetic nucleic acids (r/sNA), biological toxins, or actual pathogens. All these substances can have a range of consequences, depending on the type of spill, the volume, the location, and the practices performed when cleaning up a spill. Proactively identifying where spills can happen will help determine what clean-up measures and decontamination supplies are needed. 

If you think you have been exposed during the spill or cleanup activities, clean any exposed areas according to the GBP for Biological Exposures and seek medical attention immediately. 

Be Prepared 

  • Review the Biological Safety Manuals, Laboratory Safety Manual and Chemical Hygiene Plan (5.4), and Spill Cleanup Procedure for general spill response practices
  • Understand what hazardous materials can be found within the laboratory and identify where spills could occur  
  • Ensure a spill kit and cleanup material are available in the laboratory and be aware of where they are stored 
    • Spill kits are available through several safety supply vendors or laboratory personnel can assemble their own
    • Spill kits must be tailored to the materials the lab works with.

Basic Spill Kit Components

Obtain a container to hold the kit contents such as a 5-gallon plastic bucket or Rubbermaid™ tub. If a sharps container is not readily available in the lab, it is recommended that one be added to the spill kit.

  • 2 pairs of splash goggles.
  • 2 pairs of Nitrile gloves. 
  • 2 pairs of plastic, vinyl, or rubber shoe covers.
  • 2 disposable lab coats, aprons, or coveralls.
  • Absorption Materials: Include universal absorbents such as paper towels, commercial spill pads, pillows, spill socks, and loose absorbents.

Cleanup Tools and Materials

  • 3-5 red biohazard waste bags for biohazard spill debris.
  • EHS hazardous waste labels.
  • Forceps or tongs for picking up broken glass or other sharps.
  • Concentrated bleach or other appropriate disinfectant and empty bottle (for making fresh preparation of 10% bleach) or another appropriate disinfectant (make sure it is not expired) for final cleanup.
    • NOTE: Use disposable supplies when possible because contaminated cleanup tools are considered bio-hazardous waste.Additional Spill Response Items as Necessary for your Work Area
  • Additional PPE such as face shields, face masks, disposable lab coats, and disposable gloves.

Key Steps before Cleanup

  • Avoid inhaling possible airborne material, notify others and make sure everyone quickly leaves the room, and close the door. 

  • Post every door to the space with a warning sign. 

  • Remove contaminated clothing, turning exposed areas inward, and place in a biohazard bag (to be autoclaved later). 

  • Allow aerosols to dissipate for at least 30 minutes before reentering the laboratory 

General Cleanup – What to do in the Event of a Biological Material or Recombinant/Synthetic Nucleic Acid (r/sNA) Spill? 

  1. Wash all exposed skin with soap and water 
  2. Report the incident immediately to your supervisor and EHS by calling 911 via a campus phone or 607-255-1111 with a cellphone 
  3. Evaluate whether you have the supplies and knowledge to clean up the spill. If not, request help from EHS when reporting the incident.
  4. Assemble cleanup materials (disinfectants, absorbent material, red biohazard bags, sharps disposal container, and forceps). 
  5. Put on protective clothing (lab coat, gloves, booties, mucous membrane protection). 
  6. Cover the area with disinfectant soaked absorbent and then carefully pour disinfectant around the spill. Make certain that the disinfectant chosen is appropriate for the agent and will inactivate the biohazardous or infectious materials. 
  7. Avoid spreading the contaminated area by placing extra-absorbent material (i.e: paper towel) around the perimeter of the spill, and work toward the middle. Use more concentrated disinfectant as it is diluted by the spilled material. 
  8. If the spill occurred inside the biosafety cabinet, keep it running, and make sure to wipe down all interior surfaces, including the grill, the seams, and lift out the work surface to get into the plenum if necessary. 
  9. Contact Time – Allow for the appropriate amount of dwell time for the disinfectant (at least 15-20)  
  10. Use forceps to pick up any sharp objects and discard them in a sharps disposal container. 
    Image of forceps being used to pick up sharps
    Use forceps to pick up sharp objects
  11. Use forceps or a broom and dustpan (don’t ever use your hands) to remove the saturated absorbent materials to prevent potential exposure to sharps and place all the cleanup materials into a sharps disposal container. Smaller pieces of glass may be collected with cotton or paper towels held with forceps. If no sharps were involved in the spill discard the materials into an autoclave bag. 
  12. Re-apply fresh disinfectant to the spill site (air dry or wipe down with disinfectant-soaked towels after a 10 minute contact time). Place all contaminated absorbent and any contaminated protective clothing into a biohazard bag 
  13. Soak up the remaining disinfectant and spill with fresh absorbent and place the materials into a biohazard bag. 
  14. Identify and treat surrounding areas that may have received splashes with fresh disinfectant (look on furniture, freezers, etc.). 
    1. Bleach solutions are not to be used on metal surfaces as corrosion may result. If bleach must be used, perform a final wipe of the affected surface with ethanol or water to remove residues
  15. Remove PPE and wash hands and exposed skin areas with soap and water 
  16. Report the details of the spill event through the University’s incident reporting System. 

For Biological Toxins

  • Each laboratory must develop a toxin-specific emergency procedures plan. All work with toxins of biological origin with an LD50 ≤ 100 µg/kg must be registered with the Institutional Biosafety Committee.

  • All waste associated with toxin work should be decontaminated and disposed of according to Federal, State, and Local laws 

  • If a spill with a toxin occurs, contact EHS at 607-255-8200 for assistance with clean-up procedures. 

For Biohazardous Spill containing Radioactive Materials 

  • Before any cleanup – contact both the Radiation and Biosafety Officers (EHS: 607-255-1111) for assistance with clean-up procedures 

Important Phone Numbers 

  • In cases of an emergency, dial 911 from the lab or 607-255-1111 from your cell phone if you think this is something you can’t/shouldn’t handle alone. Notify other laboratory members and your supervisor as soon as you can…don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

  • Cornell Health Occupational Medicine 607-255-6960 is available for counseling employees involved in incidents on campus. If you prefer seeing your personal physician, please notify Cornell Health the next business day so that they can help follow up with any related response activities. 

  • For non-emergency questions, contact EHS 607-255-8200

Where to get training and more information

  • Talk to your lab manager and/or PI to become familiar with where spill supplies are, where in the laboratory there have been spills before, and additional measures that can be taken to maintain safety in the lab 
  • Contact EHS for tailored, hands-on spill response training in your lab 

    Accidental Spill Signage for the door
    Accidental Spill Sign: Hang this sign on every door leading to the lab if you have a spill