Classify Spills Correctly to Stay in Compliance!



HAZWOPER defines emergency response in the context of a hazardous substance release (spill) as “a response effort by employees from outside the immediate release area or by other designated responders to an occurrence which results, or is likely to result, in an uncontrolled release of a hazardous substance.” The definition further clarifies that “responses to incidental releases of hazardous substances where the substance can be absorbed, neutralized, or otherwise controlled at the time of release by employees in the immediate release area, or by maintenance personnel are not considered to be emergency response. Responses to releases of hazardous substances where there is no potential safety or health hazard (i.e., fire, explosion, or chemical exposure) are not considered to be emergency responses.”

In other words, if a worker encounters a hazardous spill and can control the spill and clean it up alone, then the spill would be considered incidental and would not fall under the HAZWOPER standard. But if the spill is too large or difficult for the worker to handle alone or if the substance is extremely hazardous, then the spill would fall under HAZWOPER (but only IF the employer requires an employee to help control or clean up emergency spills; see below).

If a spill is incidental, then no emergency exists. It is simply a spill that needs to be handled according to the applicable safety and environmental regulations. Employees who are responding to incidental spills would need training under the hazard communication (HAZCOM) standard, found at 29 CFR 1910.1200. HAZCOM requires employees who may be exposed to hazards to be trained in methods of protecting themselves in an emergency situation, which would include responding to incidental spills.

However, there are also other emergency response requirements outside of HAZWOPER. This exemption in the HAZWOPER standard explains what employers must do if they do not require employees to respond to spills considered emergencies: “Employers who will evacuate their employees from the danger area when an emergency occurs, and who do not permit any of their employees to assist in handling the emergency, are exempt from the requirements [of HAZWOPER] if they provide an emergency action plan in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.38.”

The OSHA standard at 29 CFR 1910.38 explains the need for employers to have an emergency action plan. This basic emergency action plan describes employees’ roles in an emergency and provides information such as emergency telephone numbers and evacuation routes. Under 29 CFR 1910.38, employees are required to be trained when the plan is introduced and when any changes occur. Consider retraining employees annually on the emergency action plan.

For more information on HAZWOPER and incidental spills, go to

To read an OSHA interpretation of incidental spills versus emergency response, visit

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard found at 29 CFR 1910.120 is a comprehensive emergency response program that defines several levels of responders and their responsibilities and establishes a written program, in-depth training, and post-emergency response provisions.

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