Will OSHA Invoke the HAZWOPER Rule at the Next Disaster Site?

A wide variety of federal and local officials explained the daunting challenges and the considerable progress being made to integrate workplace safety into disaster response programs during a recent conference organized by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

While many questions about the government's efforts were answered during the three-day (April 21-23) Washington, DC event, one key issue remains up in the air: if disaster strikes and the nation again faces an event like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, will OSHA require first responders and other workers to abide by the hazardous waste operations and emergency response standard, 29 CFR 1910.120 (HAZWOPER)?

One of the most notable achievements thus far, according to John Ferris, OSHA's special assistant for homeland security, is the agency's successful championing of a designated safety officer in the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

The expectation is that when disaster strikes, local first responders will be in charge of rescue and recovery operations. But in order to assure "inter-operability" among local, state and federal agencies, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is insisting that everyone follow NIMS and the related Incident Command System.

Ferris said OSHA succeeded in convincing DHS of the importance of worker health and safety in any future disaster, with the result that OSHA was able to spell out in detail in the NIMS the duties of a single person with overall responsibility for workplace safety.

Although OSHA will not enforce its safety and health regulations, the safety officer will be expected to implement all applicable OSHA standards and will report directly to the disaster site's incident commander.

On the second day of the conference, a panel of OSHA officials explained the various training courses the agency is making available to help prepare its own employees and private sector workers for the next major disaster.

"My question for the OSHA folks is what is 'a disaster site' and is that a HAZWOPER SITE, requiring a HAZWOPER program and HAZWOPER training?" asked Frank Mirer, director of health and safety for the United Auto Workers. No one on the panel was prepared to answer Mirer's question.

In an interview after his April 23 presentation, Ferris said he believes the agency is currently considering how to address the HAZWOPER issue in the context of disaster response.

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