Protecting Our Most Valuable Asset: Occupational Safety and Your Hazmat Team


CarolinaFireJournal - Glenn Clapp
Glenn Clapp CHMM, CFPS
01/25/2021 -

There should be no argument that the most valuable asset that our hazmat teams have is our personnel.  To look after the safety and well-being of our hazmat team personnel is not only first and foremost a moral imperative, but also is required by regulatory standards. 

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Our discussion today will focus on those particular regulations and standards that will allow us to properly ensure the safety of our personnel and that will hopefully keep us out of “trouble” with regulatory agencies. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in order to protect the safety and health of American workers.  Since its genesis, OSHA has promulgated standards for different industry settings that specifically delineate safety and health regulations.  If your hazmat team does not comply with the applicable standards, injuries or fatalities to your personnel can occur; and monetary penalties can ensue from the citations that are issued.  Many emergency response personnel will question the statement above, as we often do not view ourselves as an “industry.” In the eyes of OSHA, however, we do indeed fall under the purview of the General Industry Standard found at Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 1910. In fact, fire departments may also fall under the Construction Standard found at 29 CFR 1926 if your organization performs trench rescue/recovery services. Depending upon which state your organization lies within, the entity ensuring compliance with occupational safety standards might be OSHA itself or a state agency — such as the North Carolina Department of Labor — if your state is what we refer to as an “OSHA State Plan State.” OSHA does indeed allow such state agencies to oversee occupational safety matters if their program is at least as stringent as OSHA Standards and if OSHA approves the program. 

Although we have specific OSHA Standards that apply to the hazmat response world, it bears mentioning that OSHA has a “catch all” in the form of the General Duty Clause stipulated in 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The General Duty Clause mandates that employers are required to provide a workplace as free as possible from hazards and can be cited by OSHA or your state agency in situations in which a specific standard does not exist. As might be surmised, the OSHA Standard that impacts hazmat teams the most is the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) Standard found at 29 CFR 1910.120.  Paragraph q of the HAZWOPER Standard pertains to hazmat teams as it covers the realm of emergency response.  For instance, 1910.120(q)(1) specifies that employers whose employees are engaged in emergency response develop an emergency response plan.  As public safety hazmat responders we are still required to comply with the above requirement in the form of a site-specific emergency response plan that is developed at and tailored to individual incident scenes. 

Paragraph (q)(3) of 29 CFR 1910.120 refers to the procedures for handling emergency response, including the requirement that the senior emergency response official shall be in charge of a site-specific incident command system (ICS).  The utilization of a unified command is also alluded to in 1910.120(q)(3)(i) in that “Responders and communications shall be coordinated and controlled through the individual in charge of the ICS, assisted by the senior official present from each employer.” Additional procedural requirements include the provision that the personal protective equipment utilized and the emergency operations employed shall be appropriate for the conditions encountered; the requirement that the “buddy system” — mandating that personnel entering hazardous areas shall be in groups of at least two — be used in hazardous areas, the mandate that back up personnel properly equipped to perform rescue and “advanced first aid” assets with transport capability are in place; and the stipulation that appropriate decontamination procedures be utilized at hazardous materials response scenes.

Another element contained in Paragraph 1910.120(q)(3)(vii) that is essential to scene safety is the required designation of a “safety official” (known in ICS parlance as a Safety Officer) who is “knowledgeable in the operations being implemented.” Although we are well familiar with establishing an overall Safety Officer when appropriate at incidents, it is sometimes necessary to appoint an Assistant Safety Officer for Hazmat in large-scale incidents with a hazmat component. To meet the knowledge requirement addressed above, most safety professionals will render an interpretation that such a Safety Officer or Assistant Safety Officer for Hazmat shall be trained and certified to the minimum level of a Hazmat Technician. 

The topic of training is definitely not omitted in the HAZWOPER Standard. 1910.120(q)(6)(iii) delineates the areas of competency of Hazmat Technicians — those personnel performing offensive actions to plug, patch, or otherwise mitigate spills or releases — and subsequent paragraphs define training areas for Hazmat Specialists and OSHA Incident Commanders.  While OSHA does address the need for a minimum of 24 hours of training equivalent to the operations level of training in addition to the competencies specified to be deemed a Hazmat Technician, state certification agencies usually set the bar much higher for public safety hazmat responders (e.g. the requirement of the completion of Hazmat Operations training, an 80 hour Chemistry of Hazmat course, and a 92 hour Hazmat Technician class to become certified as a Hazmat Technician in North Carolina). We are also required to complete annual refresher training to ensure our continued competency in responding to hazardous materials emergencies.  1910.120(q)(8) requires that annual refresher training “of sufficient content and duration to maintain competencies” be completed, or in lieu of that a yearly demonstration of competency be performed. It is interesting to note that a specific duration of the refresher training is not stipulated.

As we move away from operational matters for a brief time, the topic of medical surveillance and consultation is tackled in 1910.120(q)(9). OSHA requires that a baseline medical exam be performed on hazmat team members and Hazmat Specialists. Ongoing medical surveillance is also required, in which OSHA refers us to 1910.120(f) in which a medical exam is required “prior to assignment and at least once every 12 months unless a physician believes extending the interval to a maximum of two years is appropriate.” An “exit” medical exam is also required upon termination of employment or reassignment; and employees presenting signs or symptoms of overexposure to hazardous materials are required to receive a medical exam coupled with medical consultation. Of course, a physician may reduce the interval between medical exams for personnel if it is deemed necessary. 

Our final area of discussion will be that of the personal protective equipment we use in hazmat responses that ensures that we return home to our families at the end of each shift. As we are all aware of, protecting our respiratory tract is of utmost importance in the field as inhalation is usually the quickest, easiest, and most effective route of exposure for us to hazardous materials.  OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) requires that personnel wearing tight-fitting respiratory protective equipment be fit tested — either qualitatively or quantitatively as appropriate — on an annual basis or when changes occur that may affect the fit of a respirator mask (e.g. weight loss or gain; dental work, etc.). The fit test is required for each type, make and model of tight-fitting respiratory protective equipment worn. The Respiratory Protection Standard also requires medical clearance for personnel to wear respiratory protective equipment.  Such medical clearance is required prior to wearing respiratory protective equipment and follow-up medical clearance exams are required when certain stipulated conditions — such as when the need for reevaluation is indicated or the hazards encountered change — occur. Most hazmat teams, however, require their personnel to receive medical clearance to wear respiratory protective equipment on an annual basis as part of their medical monitoring to err on the side of caution.

As our most utilized piece of respiratory equipment is the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), we should touch on the subject of flow testing. Flow testing is the process of ensuring that our SCBAs are providing the flow of air for the user that they are designed and specified to provide. OSHA does not directly address flow testing; however, manufacturers recommend a flow test interval (normally annually) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1852 states that flow testing should be performed prior to placing an SCBA in service, following any repair or rebuilding; and on at least an annual basis. If we do not follow those stipulations, OSHA or our state agency can still cite us under the General Duty Clause. 

Our hazmat suits provide the barrier between responders and the very chemicals they are exposed to. As such, we are required to perform certain maintenance and testing actions on the suits due to their important role in ensuring the safety of the wearer.

With respect to our fully encapsulating vapor protective suits, we definitely want to ensure that they remain vapor tight. OSHA provides us with non-mandatory testing procedures in Appendix A of 1910.120, however the current NFPA 1991 Standard on Vapor-Protective Ensembles — which will transition to the NFPA 1990 Standards on Protective Ensembles in the near future — specifically covers initial suit design specifications that include vapor protective suit testing in which suits are inflated to a certain pressure for a specified length of time and the pressure drop is noted. Manufacturers of vapor protective suits also will require recurrent pressure testing, usually on an annual basis. Suits that drop below a specified pressure level at the end of the test are required to be repaired — if allowed and appropriate — or taken out of service. Specific testing procedures are delineated in the suit manuals/instructions that are included with each suit.  Initial performance testing for splash protective suits is addressed in the NFPA 1992 Standard on Liquid Splash Protective Ensembles — soon to become a part of NFPA 1990.

In addition, manufacturers of splash protective suits usually require an annual inspection of each suit to ensure no imperfections or damaged areas exist.  Suit manufactures may also stipulate service life intervals for hazmat suits, at which point the suit is required to be taken out of service. As with our discussion on respiratory equipment, OSHA or our state agency can cite us for non-compliance again through the General Duty Clause.

In short, the discussion above was not designed to leave a negative impact in terms of the breadth and depth of the plethora of occupational safety regulations and standards that we must abide by as hazmat responders and response teams — and our discussion just scratched the surface in terms of those regulations and standards — but rather to underscore the importance of looking out for our personnel in terms of their safety and well-being. A by-product of continued compliance with the regulations and standards we discussed above should also keep you in the good graces of OSHA or your state occupational safety agency so that you can avoid costly fines and bad publicity for your hazmat team. As always, stay safe out there and be sure to visit the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders website at www.nchazmat.com.

Glenn Clapp is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Hazardous Materials Responders and has over 22 years of fire service and emergency management experience. He is currently an Improvement Specialist with the Industry Expansion Solutions Division of North Carolina State University and is a volunteer firefighter with the Fairview Fire Department. He is also a Technician-Level Hazmat Instructor, an Executive Fire Officer, a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager and a Certified Fire Protection Specialist.
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