Hazardous Materials "Standard of Care"

Chemicals and compounds have been known to exist for centuries. Emergency responders have dealt with them for many years and often referred to them as chemicals or by their common chemical names, if known, such as gasoline, propane, ammonium nitrate...


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When EPCRA was passed by Congress, OSHA and EPA were tasked with developing regulations to implement the requirements of the act. OSHA 1910:120 and EPA 40 CFR 311 are identical regulations dictated by federal law that apply to emergency responders that may respond to hazmat incidents. In simple terms, the regulations determine what emergency responders are allowed to do and what they are not. Some states have a delegated authority to enforce OSHA regulations. In those states, hazmat regulations are enforced by the state OSHA. In states that do not have a state OSHA, the EPA regulations are enforced. So, whether responders are in an OSHA state or non-OSHA state, they are covered by the federal regulations for hazmat responses.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, while they are not laws, are consensus standards developed by committees that determine what is appropriate for each level of hazmat response and what is not. A jurisdiction may implement NFPA standards, which makes them required in that jurisdiction, much like a regulation. While NFPA standards are not law, they are the recognized way of addressing issues that face the fire service and other organizations today, including hazmat responses.

Hazmat emergency responders may include fire, police, EMS, public works industrial personnel and other public and private workers. OSHA and EPA regulations governing training requirements for hazmat responses establish five levels of competency for hazardous materials emergency responders. According to OSHA 1810.120, “Competent” means possessing the skills, knowledge, experience and judgment to perform assigned tasks or activities satisfactorily as determined by the employer. All responders must be trained specifically for the level at which they are expected to perform by their employers. Employers are charged with the responsibility of determining the level of response, what training is required for that level and developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) or standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for hazmat responses in their jurisdictions.

There are five levels of hazardous materials responder training: awareness, operations, technician, specialist and incident commander. These five levels are also used in the NFPA 472 Standard, Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents. The NFPA standard provides much more detail than does OSHA 1910.120. Additional competencies for emergency medical personnel are outlined in NFPA 473. Each level of response has associated with it certain competencies and limitations placed upon emergency responders for their safety.

Along with the legislation and standards mentioned above comes an implied “Standard of Care” associated with responses to hazardous materials incidents. A Standard of Care is the level of competence anticipated or mandated during the performance of a service or duty. A Standard of Care is not static, but is constantly changing, influenced by laws, regulations, consensus standards, knowledge and experience. Standards of Care are not new to emergency response personnel. EMS has been governed by a Standard of Care since its inception. The EMS Standard of Care dictates what EMS first responders, emergency medical technicians and paramedics are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do.

Hazmat response personnel have limitations on what functions they can perform at the scene of a hazardous materials incident. Limitations are based upon level of knowledge, experience, training and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies. Awareness, operations, technician, specialist and incident command personnel may also have limitations, based upon the jurisdiction with which they belong.

Recognition of the existence of hazardous materials is the single-most important task any emergency responder can do upon arrival at an incident scene. Generally, hazardous materials scenes are divided into zones for the safety of personnel. These may include “cold,” “warm” and “hot” zones. The “hot” zone is where the hazardous materials are located and the greatest danger exists for response personnel. The “warm” zone is where decontamination takes place. The “cold” zone is everywhere else and should not present an immediate danger to personnel.

According to OSHA, awareness-level personnel are those who, in the course of their normal duties, could encounter an emergency involving hazardous materials and who are expected to recognize the presence of the hazardous materials, protect themselves, call for trained personnel and secure the area. When organized emergency response organizations respond to a hazmat incident, awareness-level personnel are those who first arrive at the scene of the incident. Their responsibilities and limitations are usually recognition, notification, isolation and protection.