Is it an Incidental or Emergency Spill?

Knowing the difference between an incidental and emergency spills can help managers respond accordingly.

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Releases can be classified as incidental spills or emergency spills. But determining which type of release has occurred affects the applicable Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and the corresponding mandated employee training level. According to OSHA, the properties of a hazardous substances combined with the particular circumstances of the release itself, will have an impact on employees’ level of involvement and what emergency procedures should be followed.

Spills without emergency consequences are considered “Incidental Spills” and are not covered by the emergency response provisions standard for Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (29 CFR 1910.120). However, incidental spills are covered by Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200).

An incidental spill can be described as:

  • Hazardous
  • Limited in quantity
  • Limited in exposure potential
  • Limited in Toxicity
  • NO or minor safety threat to employees or immediate vicinity
  • NO or minor health hazard to employees or immediate vicinity
  • NO or minor affects from clean up process
  • NO potential to become an emergency within a short time frame.

Employees who are familiar and trained with the hazards of the chemicals with which they are working may safely clean up an incidental spill.

Emergency spills are covered by the standard for Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER). Where applicable, all employees involved in an emergency response must be trained under 29 CFR 1910.120. At a minimum, ensure employees are adequately trained to respond or use emergency response contractors for small and large spills and provide an emergency action plan in accordance with an Emergency Action Plans, 29 CFR 1910.38.

For the definition of "emergency response" to be satisfied under HAZWOPER, the release or situation must pose an emergency and may:

  • Cause high levels of exposures to toxic substances
  • Be life or injury threatening
  • Mandate personnel evacuation
  • Cause Immediately Dangerous To Life or Health (IDLH) condition
  • Cause a fire and explosion hazard (exceeds or has potential to exceed 25% of the lower explosive limit (LEL)
  • Require immediate attention because of potential danger
  • Present an oxygen deficient condition

The training requirements for employees responding to control a spill which could result in an emergency situation are outlined in the HAZWOPER standard.

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