Spill Response

by Katie Lee

CFUs and spill response strategies: a retailer case study.

By Paul South

It’s likely many retailers, restaurant owners and managers have not heard of Ohmsett. Located in Leonardo, New Jersey, Ohmsett, which is an acronym for Oil and Hazardous Materials Simulated Test Tank, is the world’s largest oil spill research facility. It was established in 1973, closed in 1988, but was reopened shortly after the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

What Ohmsett does is provide a safe, controlled and reproducible testing environment to help governments, states and major companies such as oil and tanker companies learn how to take the most effective steps using the most advanced technologies to minimize the impact of oil spills. Because it is located right on a waterway, researchers are able to essentially recreate ocean wave conditions using a wave generating system. A “spill condition” is created so that Ohmsett researchers can follow what happens directly after the spill and as it progresses, find ways to clean it up quickly and prevent it from spreading.

retail 1Unfortunately, there is no such research center to address spills which can result in a slip-and-fall accident in commercial facilities. Yet there are thousands of spills often resulting in slips and falls daily throughout the U.S. in stores, malls, restaurants and other locations. In fact, 16,000 Americans are killed each year as a result of slip-and-fall accidents, and the numbers can be staggeringly high in foodservice locations.

According to the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI), more than 3 million foodservice employees are injured on the job in restaurants and commercial kitchens. Many of these injuries are the result of serious spills such as those from grease and oil.

To make this situation worse, many retail and restaurant facilities have no plan or strategy in place to deal with a spill. Essentially the strategy is if a staffer sees a spill somewhere, he or she should report it to a manager or, at the very least, grab a safety cone and place it in the hazardous area. But what all too frequently happens is no actions are taken — or taken too late — turning a spill into a spider’s web, just waiting for someone to step in, slip and then fall.

However, at least one major worldwide retailer is taking steps to address this issue. They are working with a manufacturer in the professional cleaning industry to develop a “spill response” strategy. While it won’t be as elaborate as the types of spills simulated at Ohmsett, the goal is the same: to deal with a spill as effectively as possible using the most advanced (in this case) cleaning technologies.

Creating a Spill Response Plan

An effective spill response strategy really starts before a hazard ever materializes. A well cleaned and maintained floor is invariably a safer floor. Cleaning professionals should always use floor cleaning solutions and finishes (waxes) with what is called a high coefficient of friction (COF). Typically a finish, for instance, with a 0.5 or 0.6 COF provides adequate friction to help prevent a slip from occurring.

Next the strategy involves two things: your people and the floor. While customers may be kind enough to report a spill, that is not their job and we cannot count on them to do this. It is the job of the store’s staff to monitor the floors in the facility, ensuring they are safe and that no spills or hazards exist that can cause a slip-and-fall or similar accident.

Know that slips, falls and related accidents can occur just about anywhere. This includes customer areas, warehouses, directly outside a building (including employee entrances), etc. The safety and preventive key here is for employees to be vigilant, watching for hazards wherever they can occur.

Steps to take once a spill has occurred:

• If a spill has been noticed, the first step is to grab a warning cone designating a floor safety hazard. This should be installed at the hazard as soon as the hazard has been noticed. In some cases, it should also remain after cleanup operations have been completed. Why, we shall explain later.

• Before taking any cleanup steps, store employees should take steps to protect themselves. Dress shoes, for instance, often worn by store staff, may not effectively grip the floor. Moisture, oil, grease or food from a spill can turn them into a snow ski. If your staffer does not have proper footwear, advise him or her to find someone else to address the hazard who does.

• Remove solid waste. If, for instance, a container of fruit has spilled on the floor, sweep and collect all the fruit as well as the container, taking extra precautions if it is glass.

• Avoid using a mop. If you have a second, stop now and go take a look at the mop in the backroom, restroom or storage closet of your facility. When you’re back, answer these questions: Was the mop sitting in a pail of dirty water? Is the mop itself dirty? Is the mop just sitting on the hard surface floor wherever it is located?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, here’s what’s happening. It’s quite likely all types of what are called “colony-forming units” (CFUs) of germs and bacteria are growing on it, growing in the bucket of water, and even on the floor where it sits. These CFUs produce a film, potentially even a slime, that can spread on the floor during a cleanup operation. This is why if you do use a mop to clean up a spill, keep the warning cone over the problem area. The spill may have been removed from the floor but because of the mop, the slippery hazardous condition may remain.


There are alternatives to using mops. Retailers and restaurant owners will be happy to know that these systems are very cost-effective, easy to use, and do not spread CFUs.

For instance, one system, and one that the major retailer mentioned earlier is testing, is what is called a “dispense-and-vac” floor cleaning system.* Let’s create a spill scenario to show how to use one of these machines:

• A carton of eggs has fallen on the floor; the spill has been noticed by a staffer and a warning sign is posted.

• The base of the dispense-and-vac system is a trolley bucket. Fill it with fresh water, a cleaning solution, and then roll it to the hazardous floor.

• At the problem area, and after solid debris has been removed, the unit is rolled over the spill, dispensing cleaning solution directly to the floor as it moves.

• If needed, a deck brush, not a mop, is used to agitate the problem area and loosen soils.

• The built-in vacuum is then used to vacuum up the moisture, the spill and any remaining debris.

Using such a system and cleaning method, it will likely not be necessary to leave a warning cone because all moisture has been vacuumed up and there are likely no CFUs on the floor. But because of the seriousness of slip-and-fall accidents in the U.S., leaving it up for a brief period after cleanup operations helps promotes safety, is prudent, and is simply good business.

* Dispense-and-vac cleaning systems can be used for other cleaning purposes but floors are their focus.

— Paul South is the president and general manager of Hamilton, Ohio-based Valley Janitorial, a 30-year-old janitorial supply company.

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