OSHA Interpretation: Not All Firefighters have HAZWOPER Clearance

Part of OSHA's Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard, a document that provides enforcement guidance to OSHA's field personnel, says, "Firefighters expected to respond to releases of hazardous substances must be trained to at least the first responder operations level since they will respond to releases, or potential releases, of hazardous substances for the purpose of protecting nearby persons, property, or the environment." According to Richard E. Fairfax, director of OSHA's Directorate of Enforcement Programs, that sentence does not mean that all firefighters must be trained to at least the first responder operations level.

In a letter of interpretation dated Nov. 7, 2008, and posted to OSHA's Web site March 3, Fairfax noted that all firefighter training is not necessarily equal. "Firefighters who are not expected to respond to releases or potential releases of hazardous substances and who would take no action beyond notifying appropriate authorities of a hazardous substance release need only be trained to the first responder awareness level," he wrote, directing interested parties to 29 CFR 1910.120(q)(6)(i). "Personnel trained to the first responder awareness level may make an effort to identify hazardous substances, but they must do so from a safe distance. Persons trained to the first responder awareness level have not been trained to select and use appropriate PPE, and they are not permitted to approach the point of release. They have not been trained to establish perimeters or boundaries designating safe and unsafe areas. These actions are to be deferred to more highly trained personnel, such as those trained to the operations or technician/specialist level."

Fairfax added that federal OSHA does not generally cover volunteer firefighters or employees of state and local governments, unless volunteer companies are established as private sector entities, with one or more paid employees. He noted that the OSH Act of 1970 encourages states to assume responsibility for their own occupational safety and health programs under plans approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. "Each state plan must provide coverage for public employees of the state and political subdivisions. That coverage must be at least as effective as the coverage provided to private sector employees. Whether volunteer firefighters are covered by a state plan depends on whether the applicable state plan considers them employees for purposes of coverage," he said. "For volunteer firefighters who are not covered by Federal OSHA or an OSHA-approved state plan, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has promulgated a standard identical to OSHA's HAZWOPER standard which protects employees in the public sector, including volunteers engaged in emergency response."

For more information about state plans, visit www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/index.html.

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