HAZWOPER: Who’s Covered and What Constitutes an “Emergency”?

Posted on 2/6/2017 by Lee Ann Coniglione

In our home lives, most of us wear many hats. We play the role of nurse, maintenance employee, landscaper, custodian, and all-around “jack of all trades.” And while many of us wear many hats at work too, it’s a little different. Unlike in our homes, there are certain rules at work that limit the activities we can and cannot perform as both employers and employees.

This is especially true when it comes to emergency response involving hazardous substances under OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) Standard. To help you maintain compliance with the HAZWOPER rules at 29 CFR 1910.120, this article focuses on which of us have responsibilities under HAZWOPER and what exactly OSHA considers to be an emergency.
Looking at the full scope of the HAZWOPER Standard we see that it specifically applies to five groupings of employers and, in turn, their employees. The five groups are:


The first group involves cleanup operations that take place at uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. This includes cleanup activities that are mandated by some form of governmental body, regardless of whether that happens to be Federal, State, local, or other.

II.HAZWOPER Cleanup at RCRA Sites

The next group of affected employers/employees is similar to the first in that it also involves cleanup activities. In this case, though, we are talking about corrective action-type of activities at sites covered by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

III.Voluntary HAZWOPER Cleanup

So far, we’ve addressed cleanup operations that are required or mandated by either a governmental entity or legislative act. The third group of individuals affected by HAZWOPER has to do with voluntary cleanup activities at locations that are recognized by a governmental entity as uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Just because the cleanup was not ordered by a government agency does not mean that employers are exempt from the HAZWOPER requirements.
Hazardous Waste Drum
IV.HAZWOPER at Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities (TSDFs)

The group that follows is a bit more specific in that it applies to facilities regulated by Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, specifically Parts 264 and 265. Here, the regulations pertain to owners and operators of hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities, or TSDFs.

V.Emergency Response at Facilities with Hazardous Substances

That leaves us with one last grouping, which, perhaps not surprisingly, covers a wide range of employers and employees. This group is not specific to any particular kind of location—it covers emergency operations performed at hazardous waste cleanup sites, TSDFs, manufacturing facilities, and medical facilities, just to name a few. Essentially, any location facing the possibility of an emergency response scenario as the result of a hazardous substance release, or even the threat of such a release, is subject to the HAZWOPER Standard.

What Is an Emergency Under HAZWOPER?

Now that we have a handle on the various types of employers and employees covered under the standard, let’s talk about what constitutes an emergency. Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dry answer.

What Is Not an Emergency

Within the HAZWOPER Standard, OSHA specifically excludes
responses to incidental releases of hazardous substances where the substance can be absorbed, neutralized, or otherwise controlled at the time of release by employees in the immediate release area, or by maintenance personnel.
[29 CFR 1910.120 (a)(3)]

One way to interpret this is that spills that can be properly handled by knowledgeable employees within the general area are considered to be “incidental spills.”

This doesn’t mean that anyone walking by who notices a small spill on the floor can take a handful of paper towels and wipe it up, for example. There are other OSHA standards that address spills in the workplace. In part, personnel must be knowledgeable of the material’s hazards and trained in proper response techniques. The point to be made here is that these types of spill response scenarios would not likely fall under the realm of the HAZWOPER standard.

Emergency ≠ Amount Spilled

While hopefully that discussion provided some insight as to what does not constitute a HAZWOPER emergency, OSHA has been very explicit in saying that the Agency does not define what constitutes an emergency in terms of an arbitrary amount of spilled or otherwise released material. The Agency has, however, outlined several general types of scenarios that are likely to be considered emergency situations, thus requiring some level of coordinated emergency response effort. The following emergency situations were outlined in a letter of interpretation from OSHA to Mr. J. Green in November 1991:
  • High concentrations of toxic substances
  • Situation that is life or injury threatening
  • Imminent Danger to Life and Health (IDLH) environments
  • Situation that presents an oxygen deficient atmosphere
  • Condition that poses a fire or explosion hazard
  • Situation that required an evacuation of the area
  • A situation that requires immediate attention because of the danger posed to employees in the area
What to Consider When Considering Training

It’s important to remember that when evaluating employee training needs at your own facility, you need to keep in mind a couple of variables. First, there are far too many contrasts to list to support the idea of making generalizations when it comes to the roles and subsequent training needs of employees. Each workplace is unique, and within the workplace, departments are unique. Individual responsibilities are likely to be unique on some level.

Another factor to consider is the types and quantities of chemicals used at your facility, and by “used,” we don’t just mean those that are part of a production process. The concept of use extends beyond production processes as we must account for chemicals in storage, whether that means in a warehouse, waste accumulation area, or tank. The reason I’ve mentioned these two important variables—individual roles and chemical use/storage—is to provide some context in which to evaluate the different types of emergency situations likely to arise at your own facility.

Whether you’re part of a new facility and tackling emergency planning scenarios for the first time, or revisiting those scenarios that haven’t been looked at in a long time, taking the time to consider some of the things mentioned in this article is a good place to start.     

$99 HAZWOPER 8-hour Refresher Training
For managers and personnel with responsibilities at “uncontrolled hazardous waste sites” like Superfund sites and other locations where voluntary clean-up activities are performed, Lion now offers the 8-hour OSHA HAZWOPER Refresher online course. Sign up to meet OSHA’s annual training standard for workers at uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. [29 CFR1910.120(a)(1)(i)–(iii)]
To learn more or sign up now, visit today.


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