Doug, a worker at your company, just spilled some of the chemical he was working with.

The clock is ticking.

How much did he spill? Should he clean it up himself? Does he report the release to his supervisor?

The clock keeps ticking.

When does the person in charge of safety and environmental compliance at your company find out about the spill? And by the time that person finds out, has anyone been harmed by exposure? How much time has passed since the spill occurred?

The clock is still ticking.

Time is of the essence. With multiple regulatory agencies concerned about chemical releases, it’s critical to have internal spill reporting procedures in place at your company. That way, compliance personnel can make the call on what happens next — and they can do it within regulatory timeframes.

Keep employees safe
When workers use hazardous substances as part of their jobs, eventually some of the material will probably spill. When it does, they need to know what to do about it.

Not all releases will require workers to initiate emergency response procedures. Some releases can be controlled at the time of the release by someone trained under OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard at 29 CFR 1910.1200. In these situations, called “incidental releases,” notifying supervisors, responders and/or outside parties would not be necessary.

On the other hand, workers must know when it is necessary to notify others to get help with a release that poses a significant hazard or cannot be controlled quickly. Employees handling emergency response releases must be trained under the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) rules at 29 CFR 1910.120.

Simply put:

• Incidental releases call for hazard communication training (1910.1200).

• Emergency response spills call for emergency response training (1910.120(q)).

Once a worker determines that a release is not incidental, he or she should initiate the notification process. This process must be spelled out in your company’s emergency response plan. The notification process depends on the needs, expectations and capabilities of your company and any outside responders. Maybe workers are to notify first responders at the operations level or an on-scene incident commander. Perhaps your plan is for them to notify a private contract hazmat service, the fire department, police department, emergency medical service personnel, a local or state emergency response team, and/or federal agencies.

Whatever procedure you choose, your company’s emergency response plan must explain who employees must notify if they come across a release of any type. This contact person may be their supervisor, an on-scene incident commander, or other designated contact. At a minimum, they need to know:

• When to make the call
• Who to contact
• What means of communication to use, and
• Where to find the necessary telephone numbers, if applicable.

Another option is to have workers alert compliance personnel for all spills, and let the specially trained personnel determine whether it’s incidental or an emergency.

Protect the environment
Now that you’ve planned for employee safety, it’s time to think about the environmental implications of a spill. To eliminate danger to the public and the environment from hazardous substance releases and oil spills, several federal environmental programs include reporting requirements. Some of those rules require the owner or operator of a facility to “immediately” notify the appropriate agencies in the event of a release.

If you’re not aware of what regulators consider “immediate,” you may not realize how quickly a violation can occur.

The regulations do not define “immediate notification.” However, legislative history indicates that “delays in making the required notifications should not exceed 15 minutes after the person in charge has knowledge of the release. Immediate notification requires shorter delays whenever practicable.” Enforcement documents instruct Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff to begin assessing penalties when notification exceeds 15 minutes.

This is when the clock starts ticking louder. Regulators do not care when you actually find out about the spill — they start the clock when you should have known about the spill. In EPA’s words, “The failure to know what could have been known in the exercise of due diligence amounts to knowledge in the eyes of the law.”

Related considerations
Individual facility documents (including air permits; storm water permits; spill prevention, control and countermeasure plans, etc.) may also include release reporting requirements. Follow-up written notification may also be required under several of these rules. In some cases, one phone call satisfies more than one of the above requirements. State and local governments may have rules that are more stringent than the federal rules.

Your workers don’t need to know all of these rules. What they do need to know is what to do when they discover a leak or spill a chemical while at work. Make sure they understand your company spill reporting policy, and that the information gets to compliance personnel in time to keep your company in compliance.

SIDEBAR: Incidental versus Emergency Response release

An incidental release:
• Can be absorbed, neutralized or controlled at the time of release by employees in the immediate release area or by maintenance personnel.
• Does not pose a significant safety or health hazard.
• Does not have the potential to become an emergency within a short time frame.

An emergency response release:
• Cannot be absorbed, neutralized or controlled at the time of the release by employees in the immediate release area or by maintenance personnel.
• Poses a significant safety or health hazard.
• Has the potential to become an emergency within a short time frame.