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Most everyone involved with hazardous materials response is familiar with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) placard and label system for transportation of hazardous materials. The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has also adopted the DOT system and requires hazardous materials placarded in transportation to continue to be placarded during storage and use.
Placards and labels must remain in place until the material is used up and the container is purged of the residue. There are also other fixed storage and use marking systems, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 704 system, OSHA Hazard Communication Systems, and miscellaneous internal marking systems for occupancies, which store and use hazardous materials.
Photo by Robert Burke
NFPA 704 diamonds displayed on the front gate indicate the presence of multiple hazardous materials at this compressed gas facility.
Work on the development of NFPA 704 started in 1952, resulting in the establishment of the standard in 1957. This system was one of the first efforts to identify locations where hazardous materials were stored and used, but does not apply to transportation. DOT did not develop its system for transportation marking for another 20 years. Because 704 is a standard, it is not required or mandated unless a local jurisdiction adopts the standard and makes it law within the community. Usage of 704 varies from community to community. Some facilities may place 704 diamonds on buildings and locations where hazardous materials are stored or used voluntarily, so it is possible 704 diamonds could be found even in communities where it has not been adopted or required by law.
NFPA 704 is a generic marking system designed to alert emergency responders to the presence of hazardous materials at a particular occupancy, to assist them in evaluating the hazards present, and to help them in planning effective fire and emergency control operations. NFPA 704 does not provide specific information about individual chemicals. The information won't provide chemical names. It is a basic identification system to help first-responding emergency personnel decide whether to evacuate the area or to commence control procedures. It also assists responders with selection of firefighting tactics, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and emergency procedures.
NFPA 704 is intended to provide information to emergency responders about the general hazards of materials that may be inside an occupancy. The hazards on a diamond do not provide information about every hazardous material in a facility. NFPA 704 diamonds list the most severe hazards of the most hazardous chemicals present. They are really only a "stop" sign to warn responders and to make them aware of hazardous materials present. Information provided will not indicate routes of entry for toxic materials, degrees of radioactivity, corrosivity or other specific chemical information. More information will be needed before mitigation efforts are undertaken.
NFPA 704 diamonds are placed on the outside of buildings near the entrances or addresses on the buildings. They may also be placed on the inside of the building where the hazardous materials are stored and used. Exact locations are left up to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), but minimum requirements in the standard require the following locations:
- Two exterior walls or enclosures containing a means of access to a building or facility
- Each access to a room or area
- Each principal means of access to an exterior storage area
Photo by Robert Burke
The NFPA 704 diamond is displayed along with a DOT flammable gas placard on a propane tank located at a gasoline station. The NFPA 704 marking system alerts emergency responders to the presence of hazardous materials.