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Hazardous Materials Incident

Last updated: September 26, 2018

What Does Hazardous Materials Incident Mean?

A hazardous materials (HAZMAT) incident is a type of safety incident that involves the uncontrolled release of one or more hazardous materials into an environment in which humans are or could be present or that otherwise holds the potential to put human or environmental safety at risk if not addressed.

HAZMAT incidents include simple spills, major spills, and emergencies.

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Safeopedia Explains Hazardous Materials Incident

Simple spills do not spread rapidly and do not pose an immediate or near-term threat to humans or the environment. Major spills and emergencies involve the release of hazardous materials that spread rapidly, endanger humans or the environment, require medical treatment for exposure or injury, or require the rescue of an endangered individual.

In workplaces, simple spills may not require reporting, and they can be dealt with by the person responsible for the spill (if qualified) or another worker with appropriate clean-up training. Emergencies are reportable accidents, and they may require qualified external professionals to adequately decontaminate the spill area and to remediate the source of the spill if necessary.

The term “HAZMAT incident” is an umbrella term for incidents that involve the release of or exposure to biological, chemical, and radioactive hazards. As such, there is no set response to a HAZMAT incident. For instance, following the release of some biological hazards, exposed persons should not leave the building the exposure occurred in and should be isolated from non-exposed persons until emergency responders arrive. In contrast, persons exposed to chemical agents should be removed from the site as soon as possible to minimize exposure.

General guidelines for safety-compliant responses to HAZMAT incidents are laid out by the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 471 standard, which divides incidents into three levels of severity (1—lowest; 3—highest). Case-specific standards include OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard, while general obligations include OSHA's 1910.38 standard that provides employees with a general obligation for emergency action plans that account for workplace hazards. The latter standard requires the development of an evacuation plan that can be relied upon in most situations where exposure to a HAZMAT incident occurs.

Employers' reporting obligations vary depending on the nature of the incident and the authorities having jurisdiction in the area that the incident is relevant to. For instance, in the United States, incidents involving the release of some chemicals may require reports to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or to a sub-national environmental protection agency or natural resources department. The U.S. Department of Transportation also has specific policies for HAZMAT incidents that impose obligations on employers involved in incidents that occur when substances are being transported via road, pipeline, or other means, including specific reporting requirements.


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