OSHA Spill Containment Requirements

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If you've even had a cursory glance at any of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration's countless guidelines, it will likely come as no surprise that they offer plenty of spill containment requirements. But rather than a – no pun intended – contained collection of OSHA spill containment requirements, work site spill guidelines are spread across OSHA's general rules for hazardous materials, as well as in complementary guidelines from other federal organizations.

OSHA Hazardous Materials Rules

The foundation of OSHA's rules regarding spills, spill prevention and spill containment lies in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 29, Occupational Safety and Health Standards. Subpart H, Hazardous Materials, dives in to hazardous waste site cleanup efforts. For the most part, OSHA's direct rules pertain to requirements for safety, training and disposal programs. This part of 29 CFR is broken down into nine basic sections:

  1. Occupational safety and health program: Each hazardous waste site cleanup effort requires a site-specific occupational safety and health program, which must be headed up by the site coordinator or the employer's representative. This program aims to protect the overall health and safety of site employees by providing means for planning and implementing appropriate training and orientation, including methods of identifying and controlling workplace hazards. 

    Site safety and health programs must include policy statements; the development of procedures for controlling hazards; means or methods of communicating the rules and procedures to employees; means to anticipate emergency situations; and means for obtaining feedback to improve the program. Accidents on job sites must be investigated to provide insight for future programs.
  2. Training: Training programs should address what sorts of hazards employees might find on hazardous waste cleanup sites; effective control measures; effective monitoring procedures; hands-on equipment training; and clear outlines of employee duties. These programs should also address competencies required for different levels of response to hazards, from employees to leaders to hazardous materials specialists. 
  3. Decontamination: Decontamination procedures must be detailed to site-specific hazards, in terms of their complexity and number of required steps.
  4. Emergency response plans: Employees and employers should utilize state- and district-designated emergency response plans as standard policy when dealing with hazardous materials. 
  5. Personal Protective Equipment programs: Here, OSHA defines personal protective clothing and equipment (PPE) as gear meant to "shield or isolate

    individuals from the chemical, physical and biologic hazards that may be encountered at a hazardous substance site."

    Because PPE can generate hazards of its own, such as heat stress, impaired vision or reduced mobility, OSHA recommends that PPE programs aim to protect the wearer from safety and health hazards, while simultaneously preventing injury from the misuse of PPE equipment itself.  6. Incident command system: This section requires the implementation of an incident command system, or ICS. Basically, an ICS is just an organized approach to emergency incidents in which a senior official is in charge of a basic command post and delegates responsibility for various tasks to subordinate officers in the event of an emergency.  7. Site safety and control plans: The safety and security of response personnel and others related to the emergency response must be of primary importance. Any and all site safety control plans need to take the safety of this personnel group into account as it would any other.

    Site safety and control plans must include a summary of on-site hazards and risks; site maps and sketches; work zone layouts; buddy system usage; hazard monitoring plan; and full, detailed decontamination procedures. 8. Medical surveillance programs: When workers handle hazardous substances or are exposed to toxic, biologic or radiation-related hazards, a medical surveillance program is necessary to monitor employee health, provide emergency treatment and keep accurate records. In this section, OSHA recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Guidance Manual for Hazardous Waste Site Activities from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a few other guides as references for medical surveillance programs that are up to snuff.  9. New technology and spill containment programs: As new products enter the marketplace, new and modern methods for emergency response to hazardous products should be used alongside traditional techniques. 

OSHA cites the following as just a few examples of classic methods for dealing with spills: diking, ditching, dam building and absorbents like diatomaceous earth. Examples of modern or emerging methods including portable pressurized applicators, the solidification of liquid waste via caustic neutralizers or activated carbon absorbents and the use of vapor suppression agents.

You may be asking yourself if your job site even needs to meet OSHA regulations for hazardous materials. If the site contains any material that requires a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) or, really, any liquid that is capable of harming a person or the environment, the answer is a short and resounding yes.

OSHA Spill Containment Requirements

Outside of procedures, programs and safety training, some of OSHA's spill containment requirements get a little more hands-on, such as the required inspection and labeling of drums and containers containing hazardous materials. Particularly related to the prevention, containment and cleanup of spills, OSHA-required measures include, but are not limited to:

  • Drip pans must be kept under all drum faucets.
  • Drip pans must be kept under all leaks.
  • Large-diameter funnels must be used to transfer liquids into drums.
  • Drum covers must be used to protect the integrity of drums stored outside.
  • Movement of drums or containers of hazardous materials should be kept to a minimum to the extent feasible. 
  • EPA-approved ground-penetrating devices must be used for determining the location and depth of any improperly discarded drums or containers.
  • When opening a drum or container, all equipment must be kept outside of the explosion barrier, and air-line respirators and approved electrical equipment must be protected from possible contamination.
  • Only tools and equipment that prevent ignition shall be used when dealing with hazardous materials.
  • Standing on or working from drums or containers is prohibited.
  • Nonessential employees should be evacuated from transfer areas.
  • Equipment operators require a barrier between themselves and potentially explosive containers.
  • Containers exhibiting bulges, swelling or crystalline materials on the outside must not be moved until appropriate containment procedures are performed.
  • Temporary worksites require a supply of tightly closed, clearly labeled potable water and a tap.

OSHA Spill Kit Requirements

In addition to going into great detail about the requirements of job site safety programs for hazardous waste, OSHA provides spill kit requirements. You can find these guidelines in full in OSHA 3114 "Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response." Here, OSHA provides rules for all sorts of spill kits, each tailored to different types of job sites:

  • Universal spill kits cater to the widest range of spill cleanups. This general-use kit, sufficient for most workplaces, can be for both oil-based and water-based spills, plus many other basic chemical spills. It should include nitrile safety gloves, eye goggles, shoe covers, sorbents and absorbent pads, disposal bags and a spill containment handbook. 
  • As you might guess, job sites with large, powerful batteries need battery acid spill kits. Alongside nitrile gloves, eye goggles and storage bags, battery acid spill kits need a poly apron to help protect clothing and skin from acid burns. Likewise, they include polymers to neutralize acid and often contain a specialized scoop for acidic pickup.
  • Mercury spill kits, found in locations such as labs and producers of mercury containing products, feature all the universal spill kit items plus some particulars. Amalgamation powder helps clean up the mercury spill while indicator powder ensures that the area is totally clean. A vapor suppressor bottle and aspirator bottle keep employees' lungs safe while a chemical sponge absorbs the spill.
  • Job sites susceptible to biological spills, like blood or other bodily fluids, need biohazard spill kits, also known as blood borne pathogen spill kits. A biohazard spill kit contains biohazard sorbents often in the form of large pillows and mats, neoprene gloves with long sleeves, sanitizing surface wipes and sanitizing hand wipes, alongside all the regular essentials. 

Though OSHA doesn't offer specific requirements for how many spill kits need to be on site, common sense dictates that you'll need at least two. That's because each kit is designed to be used only once, so you'll need to have a spare around to fulfill the requirement after you use one kit to respond to an emergency.

Additional Guidelines From Other Organizations

Essential as the governing body is, OSHA isn't the absolute bottom line for spill containment on the job site. Chief among them is the Environmental Protection Agency's Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures rule. This SPCC rule allows employers to use active and passive secondary containment methods to meet spill containment requirements. Secondary containment, by the way, is the collection of tools and methods that serve as the second line of defense in the case that your primary hazardous waste containment measures fail. Here's what the EPA means by different types of active and passive measures:

  • Active secondary containment: Products, devices and tools used to proactively or reactively contain hazardous waste, which must be physically deployed or engaged by people. Examples include absorbents, drain covers and retractable containment walls.  
  • Passive secondary containment: These are the methods permanently put in place to contain potential spills. As the name implies, passive measures don't require people to activate them. Some examples here are berms, dikes and sloped floors. 

When used alongside OSHA's Process Safety Management Standard, the EPA's SPCC essentially allows employers and facilities that deal with hazardous waste more flexibility in choosing effective control methods to best suit their individual needs.

The Department of Transportation 49 CFR 173.3 details spill containment for hazardous material during shipping, and the EPA 40 CFR 264.175 gets into requirements for container storage areas and containment systems. Meanwhile, the Uniform Fire Code from the National Fire Protection Association provides regulations for spill control, drainage control and secondary containment of liquid containers of a high capacity.

About Secondary Containment

Although the EPA's SPCC makes room for both active and passive secondary containment measures, the measures themselves are a bit of a blind spot. As of 2019, both OSHA and the EPA require secondary containment measures via more than a dozen different regulations, but neither organization actually specifies exactly the form that secondary containment systems must take.

The simplest and most straightforward way to approach this lack of guidance while still maintaining legal compliance is to take a two-pronged strategy. As long as your secondary containment system follows any existing OSHA guidelines that are in place and is truly capable of stopping any discharge that may occur on the specific job site from leaving the area, you're doing right by OSHA, no matter what design, device or product you choose to use to get the job done.

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About the Author

As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.