An unexpected release of hazardous substances, or a substantial threat of a hazardous substance release, can pose a significant health and safety risk to workers.Unexpected releases can be caused by operation failures and unrelated outside events (e.g., natural disasters, terrorism). Workers can encounter hazardous substances through waste dumped in the environment—a serious safety and health issue that continues to endanger life and environmental quality. Employers must adequately prepare emergency response and cleanup workers to clearly understand their role(s) in managing unexpected releases of hazardous substances, so that they can act quickly and respond in a safe manner during an emergency.
The Superfund Amendments Reauthorization Act (SARA) of 1996 required OSHA to issue regulations protecting workers engaged in hazardous waste operations. OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standards (in general industry, 29 CFR 1910.120; and construction 29 CFR 1926.65) established health and safety requirements for employers engaged in these operations, as well as responses to emergencies involving releases of hazardous substances. HAZWOPER requires that employers follow specific work policies, practices, and procedures to protect their workers potentially exposed to hazardous substances.
The standards provide employers with the information and training criteria necessary to ensure workplace health and safety during hazardous waste, emergency response, and cleanup operations involving hazardous substances. HAZWOPER aims to prevent and minimize the possibility of worker injury and illness resulting from potential exposures to hazardous substances.
Exposures to hazardous substances pose a wide range of acute (i.e., immediate) and chronic (i.e., long-term) health effects. These may include chemical burns, sensitization, irritation, and other toxic effects that may lead to death. Hazardous substance releases can also result in fires, explosions, high-energy events, and/or toxic atmospheres depending on the physical properties and health hazards of the released substance(s).
OSHA’s Chemical Hazards and Toxic Substances Safety and Health Topic page provides more information on safety and health hazards from exposure to hazardous substances.
Under the OSHA law, each employer is responsible for the safety and health of its workers and for providing a safe and healthful workplace. Employers must protect workers from anticipated hazards associated with participation in response and recovery operations for hazardous substances. For additional information on workers’ rights, employer responsibilities, and other services OSHA offers, visit OSHA’s employers page, workers page and publications list.
OSHA’s role is to assure the safety and health of America’s workers through setting and enforcing standards and providing outreach, education and compliance assistance. The publications “OSHA at a Glance” and All About OSHA provide information on the strategies and programs OSHA uses to promote worker safety and health.