An important part of any emergency training for employees is knowing what actions or inaction to take as a result of a hazardous material release. Unless your company is working under the 1910.120 HAZWOPER regulations and has a trained and proficient HAZMAT response team, employees are only permitted to act on incidental releases.
So, what is an incidental release? OSHA defines it as “a release of a hazardous substance which does not pose a significant safety or health hazard to employees in the immediate vicinity or to the employee cleaning it up, nor does it have the potential to become an emergency within a short time frame.”
Incidental releases are limited in quantity, exposure potential, or toxicity and present minor safety or health hazards to employees in the immediate work area or those assigned to clean them up. An incidental spill may be safely cleaned up by employees who are familiar with the hazards of the chemicals with which they are working. Some companies attempt to define incidental releases strictly be volume, such as five gallons or less. Using quantity along could result is a significant hazard to an employee. Additionally, using this quantity classification method does not address gases or solids.
The properties of hazardous substances, such as toxicity, volatility, flammability, explosiveness, corrosiveness, etc., as well as the particular circumstances of the release itself, such as quantity, confined space considerations, ventilation, etc., will have an impact on what employees can handle safely and what procedures should be followed.
Additionally, there are other factors that may mitigate the hazards associated with a release and its remediation, such as the knowledge of the employee in the immediate work area, the response and personal protective equipment (PPE) at hand, and the pre-established standard operating procedures for responding to releases of hazardous substances. There are some engineering control measures that will mitigate the release that employees can activate to assist them in controlling and stopping the release.
These considerations (properties of the hazardous substance, the circumstances of the release, and the mitigating factors in the work area) combine to define the distinction between incidental releases and releases that require an emergency response. It is therefore critical that each facility have a hazardous material inventory and assess those materials for the hazards that they may present if spilled or released. Guidance in making this determination can be found in the MSDS/SDS and also the DOT Emergency Response Guide.
Employers should have made this determination for the hazardous materials they have on site well in advance of any spill or release and communicated to their employees what actions or inactions to take. Without such communications an employee may react to a release that poses a significant risk of fire, explosion or exposure to a toxic or hazardous material. This can result in significant injuries and/or fatalities and liability for the company. Bottom line: The distinction is facility-specific and is a function of the emergency response plan.
Reference: OSHA.gov – Frequently Ask Questions - HAZWOPER