Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

OSHA requirements for employers’ emergency response activities

Posted by Jon Elliott on Wed, Jul 10, 2024

emergency-exit-4168808_1920The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes Emergency Response planning, training, and procedure requirements for employers, as one self-contained part of its multi-pronged Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) Standard (29 CFR 1910.120). This note describes these requirements, and places them in the context of a variety of emergency response planning requirements.

How does OSHA define emergency response?

The HAZWOPER Standard defines emergency response as “[a] response effort by employees from outside the immediate release area [e.g., facility fire brigade or hazardous materials team] or by other designated responders (i.e., mutual-aid groups, local fire departments, etc.) to an occurrence which results, or is likely to result, in an uncontrolled release of a hazardous substance.” This Standard does not regulate responses to what are commonly called incidental releases—where the substance can be absorbed, neutralized, or otherwise controlled at the point of release by employees in the immediate release area or by maintenance personnel—as emergency responses. Most of these lesser releases and responses are covered by OSHA standards governing your routine handling of the released materials, such as the Hazard Communication Standard.

What Emergency Response Plan requirements apply?

An employer must prepare and implement an Emergency Response Plan if any of its employees are involved or may be involved in emergency response activities. The plan must be in place before any emergency response operations.

The Plan must cover “anticipated emergencies.” These include operational upsets, natural phenomena (such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes), as well any “substantial threat of release of hazardous substances” from such events (separate HAZWOPER requirements apply to hazardous waste cleanup or corrective operations, and to routine hazardous waste operations).

The Plan must be in writing and available for inspection and copying by employees, their representatives, and OSHA personnel. Each Plan must include at least all of the following components

  • pre-emergency planning and coordination with outside parties
  • description of personnel roles, lines of authority, training, and communication
  • emergency recognition and prevention procedures
  • details of safe distances and places of refuge
  • site security and control
  • evacuation routes and procedures
  • decontamination
  • emergency medical treatment and first aid procedures
  • emergency alerting and response procedures
  • critique of response and follow-up
  • personal protective equipment (PPE) and emergency equipment

This Plan may be incorporated into an employer’s broader Emergency Action Plan (which I have discussed HERE). Readers should note that OSHA has proposed to replace its longstanding Fire Brigades Standard with a new Emergency Response Standard (I wrote about the proposal HERE).

What Emergency Response procedures are required?

HAZWOPER requires the employer to develop an Incident Command System (ICS) that provides for a range of personnel appropriate to planned-for emergencies. These will include:

  • Individual in Charge (usually called “Incident Commander” by practitioners)—your senior emergency response official, who has ultimate site control responsibility and authority
  • back-up personnel—other personnel available in support roles (experts in particular control or cleanup technologies, personnel from the immediate worksite who understand its routine operations and may provide useful insights to emergency responders, medical personnel, etc.)
  • Emergency Hazardous Materials Response Team (also called “Hazmat Team”)—personnel who are trained and assigned to respond to emergencies (if any)

Employees must receive training appropriate to the location and anticipated response scenarios, tailored to their roles. Team members must also subject to medical surveillance requirements.

What happens next?

Your organization must meet applicable emergency response requirements, including generally-applicable requirements to protect employees during and after emergencies, and additional requirements for any employees whose formal responsibilities include affirmative emergency response beyond shelter-in-place or evacuation. Summer is a good time to review these plans and activities, particularly for include weather-related emergencies from heat (and possibly wildfires), winds (particularly tornados and hurricanes), and extreme precipitation and flooding.

Self-evaluation checklist

Has the organization reviewed the range of potential emergencies at its facilities and operations, including those related to operational upsets and fires, as well as weather- or other disaster-related events (wildfires, floods, hurricanes and tornados), as appropriate?

If so, has the organization established emergency response plans identifying these hazards, and providing for equipment and training to implement them effectively?

Have any of the organization’s facilities or activities been subject to any emergency that triggered an existing emergency response plan, or which highlighted the need for such a plan, and if so, has the organization reviewed the event(s) to inform its risk evaluation and response planning activities?

Where Do I Go For More Information?

Information available via the Internet includes:

About the Author

jon_f_elliottJon Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 30 years. 

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

Tags: Health & Safety, OSHA, Safety and Health at Work, workplace safety, Hazardous Waste