HAZWOPER Compliance: What it Means to Employers

How to comply with OSHA's standard for the protection of workers at hazardous waste sites and emergency responders.

It all started with Love Canal. This small town in New York became part of the American vernacular in the 1980s thanks to actions taken by Hooker Chemical Co. in the 1950s and 1960s. It routinely buried drums of waste in shallow ditches and dumped a blend of solvents, waste oils and other substances into sludge pits.

Not only is that sort of activity unthinkable today, the result had a major impact on the structure of environmental laws and regulations in which we live.

When cleanup operations began in the early 1980s, soil and groundwater contamination was so bad that smelly, red-brown and black sludge seeped through basement walls into residents' homes (one of the weekly chores, along with mowing the lawn, was to wipe sludge off walls). Reported health effects included high rates of stillbirths, birth defects and kidney disease.

The Love Canal disaster became synonymous with toxic waste thanks to media coverage, and Congress acted. In 1980, it passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). More commonly known as the Superfund, the law provided money to clean up Love Canal and sites like it for the next six years.

During reauthorization in 1986, Congress recognized that workers on these hazardous waste sites were being exposed to some of the most toxic workplace environments known to exist. OSHA was asked to develop a standard to protect the health and safety of workers at hazardous waste sites. An interim standard was put in place in 1986, and the final standard went into effect in 1990. This was the beginning of HAZWOPER.

Who determines which are hazardous waste sites?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies hazardous waste sites (1,200 and counting nationwide). Federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy also can classify hazardous waste sites at their facilities, and state and local governments have this authority, as well. Once a site is labeled a hazardous waste site, HAZWOPER regulations for the protection of any employees at that site go into effect.

What conditions must exist to be considered a hazardous waste site?

Although there are five categories of sites, according to OSHA, we'll focus on training and other requirements for workers in categories one and three of the following:

  • Cleanup operations -- required by a governmental body, whether federal, state, local or other involving hazardous substances -- that are conducted at uncontrolled hazardous waste sites;
  • Corrective actions involving cleanup operations at sites covered by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) as amended (42 U.S.C. 6901 et seq.);
  • Voluntary cleanup operations at sites recognized by federal, state, local or other governmental body as uncontrolled hazardous waste sites;
  • Operations involving hazardous wastes conducted at treatment, storage and disposal facilities regulated by Title 40 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 264 and 265 pursuant to RCRA, or by agencies under agreement with EPA to implement RCRA regulations; and
  • Emergency response operations for releases of, or substantial threats of release of, hazardous substances regardless of the location of the hazard.

What is the difference between Superfund sites and others?

Most Superfund projects involve extensive cleanup, are large in size and get a lot of media and community attention. Some hazardous waste sites, like the Love Canal cleanup, can be active for years. The smaller, lesser-known hazardous waste sites and their cleanup projects are usually (but not always) less toxic. These include common hazardous waste sites such as former gas stations with leaking underground storage tanks that caused groundwater and soil contamination, or a plant where soil contamination is due to repeated spills from overfilling a tank. Whatever the cause, many companies will have a cleanup operation where the need to protect employees from toxic substances exist. That's where HAZWOPER comes in.

What is the HAZWOPER standard?

The HAZWOPER standard (hazardous waste operations and emergency response), 29 CFR 1910.120, protects three worker populations: employees involved in operations at hazardous waste sites being cleaned up under government mandate; those who work at hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities; and workers responding to emergencies involving chemical spills or releases. Because each case is different, HAZWOPER provides general guidelines for protecting worker health and safety at these sites.

How do we comply with HAZWOPER?

First, the company must develop a health and safety plan (HASP). Addressing all phases of the work to be done at the site, the comprehensive plan becomes the controlling document for that project at that site.

The site-specific HASP will detail plans for:

  • Initial site characterization and analysis;
  • Air, soil and water monitoring activities during phases of a project;
  • Employee training;
  • Employee medical monitoring; and
  • Emergency response if site activities get out of control.

HASP is vital because the two most common OSHA citations involve inadequacies in HASP and employee training. To make sure you have a good understanding of requirements, read the standard and its five appendices. Pick up a government publication produced by four agencies, OSHA, EPA, Coast Guard and NIOSH. The manual, "Occupational Safety and Health Guidance Manual for Hazardous Waste Site Activities," gives a good basic perspective on most issues addressed in HASP. (If you want to get more in-depth or have insomnia, the preamble to the final rule is available on OSHA's Web site, www.OSHA.gov, and gives great detail on the intention of each aspect of the regulation.

The Web site also features interpretation memos and letters, compliance guidelines and compliance directives. These documents, which can be searched by standard number, can shed light if you have a specific question. Calls to your local OSHA area office can be helpful. A letter to your regional OSHA office can handle particularly thorny or complex questions.

What are the training requirements?

Employees must be provided training that prepares them for their job functions and responsibilities, as stated in the general requirements in 29 CFR 1910.120(e). For hazardous waste-site workers, OSHA requires 40 hours of training with annual eight-hour refreshers, which can be completed in shorter blocks throughout the year, such as two hours every quarter. Twenty-four hours of on-the-job training is also required for hazardous waste workers. The annual refresher has a more open agenda in which employees can discuss issues and concerns that arose during the past year, regulatory changes and changes in methods or equipment. Good employee training should teach practical skills and be fun and participatory.

Training should include personal protective equipment (PPE) and how to use it. Protective equipment includes PPE for eyes, face, head and extremities, protective clothing, respiratory devices, and protective shields and barriers. This equipment needs to be maintained in sanitary and reliable condition, and it is up to the company to monitor that condition. Where employees provide their own protective equipment, the employer is responsible to ensure its adequacy, including proper maintenance and sanitation methods.

Respirators and rubber insulating equipment (gloves, sleeves, blankets) are also considered PPE. Because OSHA has specific requirements for those, however, they are addressed separately. For assistance in determining the need for and the appropriate choice of respiratory protection for your employees, see OSHA Instruction CPL 2-2.54, "Respiratory Protection Program Manual."

Who must provide PPE?

You must provide PPE for your employees if:

  • Their work environment presents a hazard or is likely to present a hazard to any part of their bodies;
  • Their work processes present a hazard or are likely to present a hazard to any part of their bodies;
  • During their work, they might come into contact with hazardous chemicals, radiation or mechanical irritants; and
  • You are unable to eliminate their exposure or potential exposure to the hazard by engineering, work practice or administrative controls.

The 1998 OSHA standard on respiratory protection requires that employers establish and implement a written respiratory protection program with worksite-specific procedures and elements for required respirator use. The provisions of the program include procedures for selection, medical evaluation, fit testing, training, use and care of respirators. OSHA estimates that compliance with this standard will avert hundreds of deaths and thousands of illnesses annually. Annual costs of the standard are estimated to be $111 million, or an average of $22 per covered employee per year.

What is the purpose of medical monitoring?

The purpose of medical monitoring is to protect employee health, clarify liability issues by establishing a baseline, and tracking exposures and health impacts. Medical monitoring begins with an annual exam to establish a baseline.

On a specific project, within a specific HASP, companies must verify that employees are in a medical surveillance program and identify potential exposures. The participating doctor needs to evaluate whether additional tests are needed, such as blood lead levels on a paint removal project. Air monitoring data, especially data for a specific employee, must be provided to the doctor at the time of annual exam. A good doctor should be familiar with hazardous ops enough to watch costs, ensure proper tests and ask the right questions.

With adequate planning, training and research, HAZWOPER compliance doesn't have to be a complicated process. The benefits are clear: Practicing safe hazardous waste procedures demonstrates to your employees that you care about their health. It saves money, and it's the law.

Jennifer Shriver, CHMM, is president of WorkLife Consulting Inc., a small, woman-owned business in Boulder, Colo. She provides HAZWOPER training for hazardous waste workers, RCRA facility worker and emergency responders. She develops HASPs and provides air monitoring and environmental oversight on hazardous waste sites. You can reach Shriver at [email protected] or at (303) 247-1688.

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