Ehstoday 650 Beyond Prepared

Managing Compliance: Going Beyond ‘Be Prepared’

June 1, 2011
The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan have prompted companies around the globe to re-examine their emergency response strategies.

While some companies have comprehensive emergency response strategies in place, others just now are taking the steps necessary to review possible threats, analyze potential impacts and create expanded versions of their existing plans.

If a company stores, uses or transports hazardous materials, there is the possibility of a chemical spill. While federal regulations require employees to be trained to properly manage chemical spills, it is the responsibility of an owner to keep employees safe when doing so. Companies can better prepare for a chemical spill and increase the safety of employees during an incident by providing potential first responders with basic information on recognizing different types of spills and how to respond.


Any incident involving the spill or release of hazardous chemicals, mixtures of such chemicals or hazardous waste can be categorized into three distinct groups in terms of their emergency status level:

  • Releases that clearly are incidental.
  • Releases that clearly require emergency response.
  • Releases that may be incidental or may require emergency response, depending upon circumstances.

Incidental spills — OSHA defines an incidental release or spill as “a release of a hazardous substance which does not pose a significant safety or health hazard to employees in the immediate vicinity or to the worker cleaning it up, nor does it have the potential to become an emergency.” Incidental spills do not require an emergency response, and may be cleaned up by employees working in the area where the spill occurred or by maintenance personnel.

While incidental spills do not require HAZWOPER-trained cleanup personnel, spill response personnel do need to be trained in hazard communication and to use appropriate personal protective equipment consistent with the federal or state OSHA regulations.

Emergency response spills — An emergency response spill, however, requires the intervention of spill cleanup specialists to contain and remove the spilled material safely. An emergency response spill is covered in 29 CFR 1910.120 as follows: response efforts conducted by employees outside of the immediate area of release or by other designated responders (fire departments, internal hazmat teams, etc.) to an occurrence which results, or is likely to result, in an uncontrolled release of a hazardous substance. It is important to note that a HAZWOPER-trained team must manage these spills.

Emergency response spills have the potential to occur anywhere: at hospitals and power plants, in retail stores and during highway accidents. No place is free from the potential for an emergency response spill if hazardous materials are present.

Examples of emergency response spills include spills involving high levels of toxic substances and situations immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). If area employees are not certified to don appropriate respiratory protection, a spill that exceeds the ceiling permissible exposure limit also would require an emergency response.


When responding to a spill, employees first should assess the risk surrounding the situation. For instance, they should determine the actual volume of the spilled material. Even a very small spill of a highly toxic chemical could cross the emergency response threshold. Other factors that should be considered during the risk assessment include:

  • Nature of the hazard properties of the material (i.e., flammability, corrosivity, toxicity, etc.);
  • Degree of hazard and routes of entry if toxic;
  • Physical state (powder, granular, liquid, gaseous);
  • Physical properties of the materials; and
  • Specific circumstances of the release, including location of the spill, level of ventilation and knowledge and experience of area personnel.

Knowledge of federal, state and local release reporting timelines and requirements and for the chemical spilled also can be a critical factor in effectively responding to a spill. Failure to complete agency notifications for reportable releases in a timely manner can result in fines and additional regulatory scrutiny.


Rarely is a spill expected. A spill occurs only when a system of hazardous material containment fails, usually as a result of a chain of unfortunate events. The potential for chemical spills exists anywhere these materials are stored, used or transported. Unforeseen chemical spills can threaten employees, customers and the general public. Even when personnel are safely evacuated from the spill zone, emergency response spills often lead to serious business interruption, facility or environmental damage, as well as other potential for financial impact.

Fully training and equipping a hazmat response team that is capable of quickly and safely managing all types of chemical spills that may occur at a facility can be a complex process, as well as costly to set up and maintain to an ongoing state of readiness. Training typically includes 24 to 40 hours of combined classroom education and hands-on instruction in practical spill response techniques. OSHA mandates annual refresher training, and prudent EHS managers recognize the need for frequent drilling to maintain team readiness.

Equipment requirements vary depending upon the nature of the potential emergency response scenarios to which the hazmat team is expected to respond. Typical equipment includes protective clothing, air monitoring equipment, self-contained breathing apparatus, tools and absorbent materials that can cost thousands of dollars.

Maintaining a hazmat team requires a considerable investment in time. Time must be provided for emergency response planning (including pre-emergency assessment for on-site teams), developing resources for cooperation, annual medical evaluations, developing safety and health programs, performing recurrent training, maintaining personal protective equipment programs, maintaining air monitoring equipment and preparing for decontamination procedures.

Staffing an in-house emergency response represents responsibility for personnel as well as the effectiveness of the response and subsequent cleanup.


The alternative to training, equipping and maintaining an emergency response team is to outsource emergency response, should a significant spill of hazardous materials occur. In most circumstances, outsourcing means identifying and qualifying an emergency response contractor (or perhaps two or three, to ensure availability) to respond on an on-call basis to spill events. Qualifying contractors is essential and best performed by an environmental professional aware of appropriate criteria and experienced in such evaluations.

Regardless of whether emergency response is done in-house or outsourced, the key to success in the event of a hazardous materials spill is preparation and information.

Jesse Ortiz is 3E Co.'s hazardous response team manager. In this role, he helps customers who call into 3E's EH'S Mission Control Center with hazmat questions or concerns. Prior to joining 3E Co., he was part of the emergency response team at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in Southern California for more than 15 years. ISAAC POWELL is product manager for 3E Co.'s Technical Services, which includes emergency response, hazardous waste management, transportation, classification and regulatory reporting services. He has been certified as a hazardous materials manager by the IHMM and is a member of the AHMP, National Fire Protection Association and International Code Council.

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