Chemical emergency

A chemical emergency can happen as the result of an accident or deliberate criminal act. Chemical emergencies can include:

  • fire, explosion or chemical spill at a fixed site like a warehouse
  • leaking containers at a factory
  • fuel or oil spills
  • toxic black smoke - eg from a high-rise building or plastics factory
  • road or train accidents.

Prepare for a chemical emergency

Planning and knowing what to do during a hazardous chemical incident will help you avoid making decisions that could prove fatal. As part of your preparation you should:
  • understand your risks - eg do you live near a factory or petrol station?
  • with household members have an emergency plan and emergency kit - include plastic sheets, duct tape, and scissors to seal any areas where air can get inside your home or building
  • learn what to do during and after a hazardous chemical incident.

In a major incident, depending on the circumstances, you may need to shelter in place or evacuate.

'Shelter in place' is a term used by emergency services. It means to make a shelter out of the place you are in - eg home, school or workplace. You should try not to shelter in a vehicle unless you have no other choice, as vehicles aren't airtight enough to give you adequate protection from chemical fumes and smoke.

When discussing your plan with your household, decide on a safe room where you can take shelter:

  • a room with as few windows and doors as possible
  • above ground level, as some chemicals are heavier than air, so will build up in low-lying areas
  • has a water supply.

You should also be aware of the emergency procedures at your work, your children's school and on public transport that you use.

Schools have their own emergency procedures and will shelter any children in attendance during an incident. School officials and emergency services will decide when its safe to collect children from school.

During a chemical emergency

If you are the first on the scene:

  • warn people in the immediate vicinity
  • where possible, try to remain upwind of the scene
  • dial Triple Zero (000) and ask for fire - provide as much information as you can without endangering yourself, eg address of incident, name of the chemical and UN number (eg UN 1017 for chlorine), amount of chemical spilt, form of chemical (solid, liquid, gas), details of any people affected or injured, details of any vehicles involved
  • don't ignore the incident
  • don't touch or breathe in the chemical
  • stay away from accident victims until the hazardous chemical has been identified and it's safe to approach them.

Shelter in place

If you are told to shelter in place:

  • go inside as quickly as possible, taking pets with you
  • if there is time:
    • shut all external windows and doors
    • turn off all heating and cooling
    • close off any areas where air can get in
  • go to a safe room and take with you:
    • your family and pets
    • an emergency kit with food and water supplies
    • your mobile phone and charger
  • once in your safe room:
    • shut the door
    • seal areas where air can get in - eg under doors, through drain holes or vents, and around windows. Use wet towels or wet newspaper or plastic and duct tape
    • close curtains and blinds
    • tune into your local ABC radio station for information and updates.

Carbon dioxide will build up in a sealed room, depending on the size of the room and the number of people in it. After two to three hours, contaminated air from outside, will gradually seep into the room. At this point evacuation from the area is the better protective action to take.


When evacuating:

  • follow instructions from emergency services
  • follow your emergency plan
  • take your emergency kit with the bare essentials as you'll need to leave quickly
  • remember to look after others that may require special assistance
  • follow the traffic route that authorities recommend:
    • don't take shortcuts
    • tune into your local ABC radio station for information and updates.

If you're caught outside

If there is nowhere to shelter remain upwind, uphill and upstream.

Avoid low-lying areas - eg gullies or ditches as some hazardous gases and vapours are heavier than air and will accumulate in these areas.

Don't walk into or touch any spilled liquids, airborne mists or condensed solid chemical deposits.

Try not to inhale gases, fumes, or smoke. Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth.

If you're in a vehicle

Stop and seek shelter in a building.

If you can't leave the vehicle:

  • keep car windows and vents closed
  • shut off the air-conditioner and heater
  • drive away.

Contact with hazardous chemicals

In most cases, emergency services will tell you what to do if you have been exposed to or come into contact with a hazardous chemical.

Every situation will be different but if you haven't heard from emergency services you need to act quickly:

  • remove your contaminated clothing
    • don't pull clothing over your head but cut it off
    • use a cloth, sponge, or other suitable product ie nappies or a paper towel to blot the visible chemical off your skin. Do not rub.
    • wash yourself
      • use large amounts of soap and water
      • if your eyes are burning or you have blurred vision rinse your eyes with water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you were wearing contact lenses remove and dispose of them.
  • dispose of the clothing
    • use rubber gloves or tongs to avoid touching the clothing
    • place the clothes and then the gloves or tongs in a plastic bag
    • seal the bag and then seal the bag inside another plastic bag
    • don't handle the bags or dispose of them. Wait for emergency services to tell you what to do.

Leaving your shelter

Don't leave the shelter unless you are told to do so by emergency services.

When told to leave the shelter, follow instructions from emergency services officers to avoid any possible contaminants outside.

Businesses with notifiable quantities of hazardous chemicals

Hazardous chemicals - SafeWorkSA

Hazardous chemicals - Safe Work Australia

Hazardous Chemicals and Emergency Planning - Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS)

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Page last updated 2 December 2022

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